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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op.73 [38:47]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Overture [15:05]
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra (Brahms), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Rudolf Kempe (Wagner)
rec. 16 January 1973, Deutsches Museum, Munich (Brahms); 24 May 1973, Royal Festival Hall, London (Wagner)
DVD Format: NTSC; Picture Format:4:3
Sound: Enhanced Mono
Region Code: 0
Menu: English

Just perusing their catalogue, I was both surprised and impressed by the number of filmed performances/concerts ICA Classics have issued on DVD. The trailer at the beginning of this latest offering expounds their philosophy. These filmed performances are considered of such artistic significance that they are worthy of preservation and restoration. So they are being made available, not only to those who remember attending the concerts, but to music lovers in general, who enjoy the visual experience of seeing these great artists at work. Their sources are, in the main, the original archive master video tapes. This material is of an age where flaws are sometimes present. Consequently, in the editing and restoration process, ICA sometimes have to marry up separate sound recordings with the film.
This DVD of portions of two concerts from 1973 by Rudolf Kempe - one of the great unsung conductors of the twentieth century - is very welcome indeed. In comparison to some other conductors, there doesn’t appear to be much of Kempe on film. ICA Classics have only one other release in their DVD catalogue - his take on Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben and the ubiquitous New World Symphony.
Born in Dresden in 1910, Kempe started his musical life as an orchestral oboist with the Gewandhaus. Here he played under such eminent conductors as Klemperer, Beecham, Kleiber, Busch and Richard Strauss. Such was his talent that he garnered praise from none other than Wilhelm Furtwängler for his rendition of the oboe solo in Strauss’s Don Juan. Later, after stepping onto the podium on a couple of occasions to fill the breach, he realized that conducting was the road he wanted to take. Having worked in numerous posts, he became artistic director of opera in Weimar alongside Hermann Abendroth. Here he further developed a love for the music of Richard Strauss, giving a local premiere of Capriccio. In the early 1970s he recorded the Strauss orchestral works with the Staatskapelle Dresden. This set became a pillar of the catalogue, much reissued on LP and CD (review review review) and most recently in a 9 CD box newly re-mastered (Warner Classics 50999 4 31780 2 5). His well-regarded 1968 Ariadne auf Naxos (review) is also included in Warner’s new ‘Strauss ‘Great Operas’ box (50999 4 31799 2 3). After the death of Furtwängler in 1954, Kempe was asked by Electrola to fulfil some of the maestro’s commitments. One of these was to record Brahms’ Second Symphony. This was to be the first of four studio recordings he made of that work, which happens to be the symphony featured on this DVD. On Beecham’s death in 1961 he was appointed artistic director and principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1975, a year before his untimely death, he became principal conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
Kempe was a natural Brahmsian, in fact he was equally splendid in Wagner; his Lohengrin is testimony to that. This is the first time I have seen him conduct, I never had the privilege of hearing him live in concert. What strikes me watching this film is his modesty, charisma and self-effacing manner. He is not one to stamp his personality on the score, but lets the composer speak for himself. He has a very precise stick technique and you can discern the beat at all times. The Brahms Symphony is more fleet of foot and less broad than the 1955 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic on Testament (SBT 3054). Kempe has an architectural grasp of the score, but it’s not epic Brahms like Klemperer … or Furtwängler for that matter. It’s almost understated, yet effective. It’s an elegant performance, lyrical and expressive. There’s a wonderful sense of line throughout. Dynamics and phrasing are all well-judged.
The Wagner Tannhäuser Overture also provides an example of a composer in which Kempe excelled. It is a compelling performance with a great sense of drama. I love the way he coaxes the brass and woodwind, who are exemplary throughout. Perhaps the camera-work in the Royal Festival Hall is not quite as adventurous as in the Munich venue. Nevertheless there are some striking shots of a great conductor at work.
For lovers of Kempe’s art, of which I am one, this visual document is not only very welcome but also of great historical value. Booklet notes are in English and German. My only criticism is that at 57 minutes it is a little short on value. Other works from these concerts could surely have been included?
Stephen Greenbank

Masterwork Index: Brahms symphony 2