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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonatas Nos 24 and 26-32
Wilhelm Kempff (piano)
rec. 1925–1936
APR 6018 [76:02 + 71:26]

Technological advances meant that Wilhelm Kempff’s Beethoven sonata cycle of critical choice tended to favour – in terms of sound quality – the stereo cycle, whilst the 1951 mono continued to draw perhaps even greater interpretative esteem. In the to-ing and fro-ing over these two complete cycles, the fruits of Kempff’s pre-war sonata trawl went largely untasted except for die-hard 78rpm aficionados. He recorded 24 of the 32 sonatas on Polydor 78s and in what I hope will be a complete disinterring of that two-thirds complete cycle APR concentrates on the late sonatas, Opp. 78 to 111.

The sonatas are presented in ascending opus order not by date of recording, which is a sensible approach. Only one of these eight recordings was made via the old acoustic process, in any case, so there is a relatively consistent sound to the electric Polydors. Kempff’s characteristic tonal qualities are strikingly audible even as early as the 1925 Op.101 – indeed they can be savoured in the companion Concerto disc (review) in a recording from 1920 – with tonal balance weighted in favour of treble sonorities and thus with a frequently sublimated left hand. Each of these sonata recordings acts as an early index of Kempff’s maturity in this repertoire, and also his very different aesthetic from the prevailing Beethoven God, Schnabel, much less the unseated erstwhile Lion of this repertoire on disc, Frederic Lamond. Kempff’s more refined aesthetic is very different from that of both men.

There is a true Allegro vivace in Op.78, and taut expressive control in Les Adieux, not least in its sense of timeless melancholic breadth. The sense of declamatory flow in Op.90 is unimpeded by any audible side joins in the second of the two movements. The Hammerklavier is unusual both for Kempff’s cultivation of those lighter tonal sonorities and for the uniquely slow tempo for the Adagio sostenuto – unique in Kempff’s terms, as he tightened up this movement significantly when it came to those two later cycles. It’s analogous to his conception of the Largo of the C minor Concerto which he recorded in 1942 and which was soon to be subject to a kind of expressive overhaul after the war. It too was tightened and made less reverential.

Op.101 is a late acoustic Polydor recorded in 1925. For all that, frequency response is good and whilst the difference between horn and microphone recording is obvious it’s in no way problematic. One can hear qualities of textual and digital clarity and transparency at their peak in this performance of Op.109. The refinement of Kempff’s touch is matched by the surety of his unfolding of the sonata. It’s a reading of great dignity though one somewhat undermined by the jettisoning of repeats in the finale. It could have done with another 78 side, though that would have taken it beyond the two allocated discs. Opp. 100 and 111 were also recorded in July 1936, that month witnessing a hastening of the project to record Kempff’s Beethoven sonatas. Missing repeats are, naturally, a feature of 78rpm recording, and turn up elsewhere – notably Op.110 – where they are perhaps less damaging. Here Kempff seems in places almost to play the whimsical poet to the thundering grandeur and Goethe-philosophising of a Schnabel. In Op.111, Kempff is once more the antithesis of Schnabel. Had Lamond recorded it, we would assuredly have witnessed an even more extreme stylistic disconnect. But for those who find an occasional flimsiness in Kempff’s responses to the last sonatas there will be others who appreciate the process by which he seems sometimes to humanise their Olympian stature.

This twofer offers just such opportunities for reflection and analysis - for musical pleasure too, and for the reclamation of a body of recordings too easily lost under the weight of Kempff’s even more productive post-war career. Fine notes and transfers enhance this project still further.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank


CD 1 [76.02]
Sonata No. 24 in F sharp major Op. 78 [6:37]
rec. 1932 (Polydor 90193)
Sonata No. 26 in E flat major ‘Les adieux’ Op. 81a [14:15]
rec. 1928 (Polydor 66687/8)
Sonata No. 27 in E minor Op. 90 [13:37]
rec. 1928 (Polydor 62639 and 66712)
Sonata No. 29 in B flat major ‘Hammerklavier’ Op. 106 [41:32]
rec. 7 and 25 January 1936 (Polydor 67077/81)

CD 2 [71.26]
Sonata No. 28 in A major Op. 101 [16:00]
acoustic recording, 1925 (Polydor 66178/9)
Sonata No. 30 in E major Op. 109 [14:18]
rec. 29 July 1936 (Polydor 67091/2)
Sonata No. 31 in A flat major Op. 110 [18:01]
rec. 29 July 1936 (Polydor 67088/90)
Sonata No. 32 in C minor Op. 111 [23:07]
rec. 31 July 1936 (Polydor 67093/5)



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