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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Complete Wartime Piano Sonata Recordings
Wilhelm Kempff (piano)
rec. 1940-43, Berlin
APR 7403 [4 CDs: 299:06]

This is the third set of Wilhelm Kempff's early Beethoven recordings that I've had the pleasure of reviewing. APR have also released the pianist's recordings of the late sonatas (APR6018 - review) and piano concertos 1, 3, 4 & 5 (APR6019 - review). Here we have sixteen sonatas set down for the German label Grammophon between 1940 and 1943, complementing Kempff's late sonata traversals in the previous volume recorded 1925–1936. What will delight the pianist's followers is the fact that several of the sixteen sonatas are here being issued for the first time. One can't help wondering whether this was all part of a projected complete cycle.

I very much enjoyed reading Bryce Morrison's accompanying essay; he's always guaranteed to offer a wealth of knowledge and insights into his subject. Here he expounds on the exceptional qualities that distinguished Kempff's playing. He quotes Alfred Brendel, who aptly sums up the traits that distinguish the pianist's playing. He compares it to an Aeolian harp, 'ever ready to respond to whatever wind blew its way'. Capricious, spontaneous, improvisatory and ever-evolving are adjectives I’d use. He gets to the nub of it when he says that Kempff '.........never sought to replace music's quicksilver attributes with statements set in stone', and that he constantly strove to illuminate 'great music from within'.

The pianist had a vast repertoire, where Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms lay at its centre. Beethoven constitutes the vast bulk of his early recordings - 80%. One reason why this early legacy has been overlooked is that he went on to record two complete cycles for DG later in his career, which have focussed more interest. There's a mono cycle from the 1950s and a stereo from the 1970s (I have a personal preference for the former).

The sunny mien and geniality of Op. 2, No. 2 is established from the start in the athletic octave jumps which open the work. The lyrical rondo finale is enchanting, and the arpeggio/scale that opens each repeated appearance is pearl-like, becoming more involved an elaborate with each entrance. Op. 10, No. 3 is every bit as rewarding as Richter's live performance from Paris, 7 November 1980 (Pyramid 13500/1), which is the finest I've heard. The slow movement is sublime and invested with melancholy and anguish. The Menuetto is graceful and elegant, whilst the rondo has a teasing playfulness.

Not so successful is the opening Grave of the Pathétique, which is heavy-laden. The rest of the movement is also reserved and held back, being short on energy. There are no such problems in the Moonlight Sonata. The opening movement has an attractive fluidity and haunting quality evoking peace and resignation. The finale reveals some stunning finger-work and aplomb.

Op. 22 has sufficient energy in the opening movement and articulation is crisp and incisive. Kempff's radiant tone is tailor-made for the quasi-operatic Adagio con molta espressione, and the listener will be won over by the eloquent shaping of the phrases. Added to that, the left-hand chords never sound obtrusive or monotonous as in some performances I've heard. I enjoyed the nicely-paced Op. 31, No. 3. The Scherzo, delivered with invigorating staccato, is light and airy. The Menuetto is stylish, with the finale truly portraying the hunt. My only comment about the Appassionata is that I would have preferred greater intensity in the finale

As is the norm, APR's annotations are first class and supply useful context. A convenient table listing all of the pianist's 78-rpm Beethoven sonata recordings with matrix numbers will satisfy anoraks like myself. Mark Obert-Thorn's restorations, with minimal interventions, preserve the frequency range of the originals. I have to say, they sound wonderful; the music comes over alive and fresh. All told, these recordings are a revelation

Stephen Greenbank
Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

Complete contents:

CD 1 [70:52]
No. 2 in A major op. 2 no. 2 (1794-5)
No. 9 in E major op. 14 no. 1 (1798)
No. 10 in G major op. 14 no. 2 (1799)
No. 11 in B flat major op. 22 (1800)

CD2 [75:20]
No. 4 in E flat major op. 7 (1796-7)
No. 5 in C minor op. 10 no. 1 (1795-7)
No. 6 in F major op. 10 no. 2 (1796-7)
No. 7 in D major op. 10 no. 3 (1797-8)

CD 3 [74:32]
No. 8 in C minor op. 13 "Pathétique" (1797-8)
No. 12 in A flat major op. 26 "Funeral March" (1800-01)
No. 14 in C sharp minor op. 27 no. 2 "Moonlight" (1801)
No. 21 in C major op. 53 "Waldstein" (1803-04)

CD4 [78:22]
No. 13 in E flat major op. 27 no. 1 (1800-01)
No. 15 in D major op. 28 "Pastorale" (1801)
No. 18 in E flat major op. 31 no. 3 (1802)
No. 23 in F minor op. 57 "Appassionata" (1804-05)

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