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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Complete Piano Sonatas

Wilhelm Kempff (piano)
rec. Hannover, Beethoven Saal, 1964/65
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4777958 [8 CDs: 597:07]

Wilhelm Kempff recorded the Beethoven Sonatas three – almost four – times. The first time around, in the 20s through the 40s, he recorded 25 sonatas on shellacs for Polydor. This was well before Artur Schnabel set upon recording the sonatas. After the war, recorded in the first half of the 50s, the mono cycle on LPs for DG came on the market. It’s a reasonably well known set, slightly rare, and very good. Then, fairly recently, came the surprise news from Japan that there was a complete cycle recorded by the NHK in 1961, which makes it Kempff’s third cycle – and perhaps the most interesting (I’ve not heard it), because Kempff’s qualities are said, by Joachim Kaiser among others, to have shone most in concert and less on record. Finally, there came the stereo re-make in the DG studios in Hannover, which constitutes this, his fourth and far and away best-known cycle. In fact, there was a time in continental Europe where this cycle was as ubiquitously part of a Bildungsbürger family’s household as were Karajan’s Beethoven Symphonies and Fischer-Dieskau’s Schubert. For generations of listeners, this was the classic Beethoven sonata set.

Why exactly that is the case is difficult to say, because Kempff convinces through subtlety and superb accounts especially of all the lesser known and ‘little’ sonatas, not bombast or brilliance. Frankly, those are the exact right reason to be famous for Beethoven – it’s just rarely the kind of quality that catches the limelight. Much like in his the mono-cycle (where this is even more notable), his spontaneous, flittering ways work very well here; there is nothing of a stereotypical German keyboard titan about the works or the artist. Nothing is overthought, overwrought, domineering, stern. This allowed Kempff to be a favorite in France… (Yves Nat’s casual, sometimes droll pianism does offer a few stylistic parallels). In the bigguns, like the “Appasionata”, “Waldstein”, “Hammerklavier”, op.111 sonatas, Kempff is rarely outright impressive. He had the technique for anything that Beethoven throws at the pianist, but not much to spare in the more difficult works. He never operates with excessive ease. This makes his attack never impetuous nor outright hesitant… but ‘searching’. It also prevents any of his Beethoven from sounding facile. On the other hand Kempff is not as perpetually understated as Backhaus… especially when he is being playful.

Now there is a rule in classical CD collecting, namely that an older set that’s harder to get must also, always be the actually preferred one. The cognoscenti will tell you so – and en passant point out that they do of course have all the recordings in question and the discerning taste to go with it. This applies to Kempff in some way. Although (which is to say: because) this last set is the mainstream one, listeners will point to his earlier, mono, set (or if they are extremely sophisticated, the incomplete Polydor recordings, recently re-issued by APR Recordings) as the superior one. They will say the same for Backhaus, for example, where the mono set is still harder to come by.

Negating that point is the fact that Kempff’s technique wasn’t slipping from the level it had been at, when he previously recorded these works and the stereo sound is better than any previous recording. The interpretations are essentially the same; for the most part the difference is subtle. That said, this is a case where I happen to agree, tepidly, with the “rarer/older = better” crowd. The mono set strikes me as offering all the qualities of Kempff – especially playfulness, lightness, almost whimsy (within Germanic, scholarly limits) – to a slightly more pronounced degree and the mono sound is decidedly good. Anyone placing a premium on sound quality, should find the sonic improvements to outweigh the subtle increase of interpretative freedom in the earlier set. But then, why would anyone placing such a premium on sound quality go with a set of piano sonatas over 50 years old?

As the Beethoven Survey of complete piano sonata cycles (here on MusicWeb and, updated, on ionarts) shows, there are 98+ complete cycles out there. And still, the first half dozen (Schnabel, Kempff I & II, Backhaus I & II, Arrau, Brendel I) are considered the standard-bearers. Isn’t there something fishy about that? Is the emotional footprint (or the accumulated reputation) of these recordings playing tricks on us? Doesn’t Maria Kodama, for example, because I find her stylistically comparable, have as much to offer as Kempff, except with better technique and in far superior sound (on Pentatone SACDs)? Probably. Perhaps. But nostalgia, among many non-objective influences on our hearing, has its place and an effect. It may play into my appreciation of Kempff’s Beethoven, too, which is considerable – in this set and the earlier one alike.

Ultimately Kempff’s set is solid, in the best, most empathetically positive sense of the word. It’s still, after so many decades, a worthy standard to have – or at the least a historical item showing us what the standard, for so many years, had rightly been.

Jens F. Laurson



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