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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 – 1893)
Grand Sonata for Piano in G major Op. 37 [26:23]
The Seasons, Op. 37b [39:25]
Freddy Kempf (piano)
rec. November 2014, Bavaria Studios, Munich, Germany
BIS BIS-2140 SACD [66:28]

“The Piano Sonata is a strong candidate for the dullest piece that Tchaikovsky ever wrote”, claimed David Brown in his great four-volume survey of the Russian’s life and music. Yet it has regularly been recorded by leading Russian virtuosi such as Richter, Gilels and Pletnev. It less often heard in the hands of pianists from outside Russia perhaps, though Joseph Moog’s recent Onyx disc was much praised, and now Freddy Kempf has entered the lists with this new coupling on BIS.

The first movement of the 1878 Grand Sonata has always seemed to be where the main problems lie. Brown is absolutely withering in his disdain, accusing Tchaikovsky in this movement of “sterility…chunkily chordal, rhythmically square, short-winded phrases…tedious sequences, noisy posturing,” - and worse! Kempf knows that the answer is to believe in it nonetheless and to play it for all it is worth, which is what he does. The second subject has some appeal at least (even Brown concedes that much, speaking of its “watery charm”), and it is touchingly etched in by Kempf. The pianist has good classical manners, and does not put the brakes on when it arrives, but keeps the music moving forward. The opening of the slow movement (a “thematic non-event” – Brown) finds Kempf meditative, as if in search of a theme that never quite arrives, and impressively fleet of finger in the lively moderato con animazione section. The scherzo is often thought the best movement, (“if only because it is the shortest” – Brown), and is swiftly and lightly played, its whimsy never indulged too much. The finale has a rondo structure and Kempf characterises each episode well. He holds the whole together, again with fairly swift tempi.

The Seasons is a collection of twelve short pieces, each named after a different month of the year. They were commissioned to appear in a monthly St Petersburg journal. Tchaikovsky thought of this as hack work, and told his servant to remind him each month when it was time to send the next one off. Despite these origins the music is characteristic of Tchaikovsky and many items have great charm. They are the closest the composer gets to having a popular solo piano work in the catalogues. June has a lovely lilting barcarolle, which Freddy Kempf clearly relishes, as he does the autumnal melancholy of October. The more extravert numbers are dashingly despatched, such as the harvesting in August, the hunting scene of September and the Troika ride of November. The Christmas waltz for December anticipates The Nutcracker ballet and closes a generally satisfying disc. Perhaps this Seasons does not quite have the warmth of two favourite accounts from the 1990s, Ashkenazy on Decca or Pletnev on Virgin, but the playing is engaging nonetheless, more so than in the sonata.

The booklet prints all the short poetic epigraphs for The Seasons, which appeared alongside the music when it was first published, and there is also a good short note by Andrew Huth. The SACD recording is clear and wide-ranging, although the instrument does often sound more than a bit clangourous in the highest register. But overall we can be grateful that Kempf has added an all-Tchaikovsky solo piano disc to the catalogue. They are not so commonplace, and coupling these two works makes good sense, as well as a worthwhile addition to the collection of any lover of Tchaikovsky’s music.

Roy Westbrook


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