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Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Peer Gynt – Suites No. 1 [12:30]
Peer Gynt – Suites No. 2 [14:23]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 82 [29:36]
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105 [16:14]
Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra (Grieg); Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam (5); Hilversum Radio Philharmonic Orchestra (7)/Paul van Kempen
rec. May 1939, April 1940 (Grieg); Concertgebouw, Amsterdam: May 1943 (5), 11 May 1950 (7)

Paul van Kempen's dates (1893-1955), which fall short of hi-fi's stereo heyday, militated against his discs forging a magnetic reputation. His life-choices also did little to help: born in the Netherlands, he opted to become a German citizen in the 1930s. He served as music director with various of the other smaller orchestras in Germany before following Karajan at Aachen (1942-44). Post-war he reaped the rewards of his embrace with the Nazi music world. Nevertheless, he managed to secure the directorship of the Hilversum Radio Philharmonic and in 1953 a similar position with the Bremen orchestra.

Audio-technical and political issues aside, how does he stand approaching 65 years after his death? This disc, diligently assembled by Pristine, with that hero of resurrection from analogue sources, Mark Obert-Thorn, gives the chance to weigh things up. We are dealing with mono originals between 70 and 80 years of age. The brushy-bushy surfaces of the Grieg items with the war-time Dresden Philharmonic of which he was music director, are 'busy' but the intrinsic sound is good and solid. As for style, one senses that van Kempen keeps a stern and resolute grip. There's a very taut and angry Peer Gynt's Homecoming (tr. 7) as well as a Tchaikovskian throb from the violins in the famous Morning (tr. 1). His approach balances generous romance with kapellmeisterish severity. You can almost feel the duelling scars.

The discs from which the two Sibelius symphonies derive either had quieter surfaces or the bristle has been subdued. Mr Obert-Thorn helpfully tells us that van Kempen made: "many memorable recordings (with the Dresden Philharmonic) for Grammophon/Polydor from the late 1930s through the early 1940s (including a Beethoven Fifth reissued on Pristine PASC 327). These (the Grieg items) were pressed on war-time shellac with a higher-than-usual level of surface noise."

Van Kempen's Sibelius Fifth is generally steady and precise but the major climactic motif at 6:00 is briskly put across: urgency rather than lush expansion. The last few pages of the first movement seethe and tramp forward at considerable speed but without descent into gabble. On an audio front I do not like the way the middle movement ends like a cliff-edge into silence. More 'surface' would have produced a less brutal drawing of breath before the measured finale in which an epic stride is intensified by wonderfully lucid delineation of the brass. The producer tells us that "A post-war yellow-label DGG pressing with relatively quieter surfaces than wartime pressings was located for this transfer."

That single instance of speed, bordering on the impetuous, in the Fifth, carries over into van Kempen's pulse-racing account of the Seventh. At 16:14 this is fast - the fastest so far on record. Ears and minds are conditioned by the recorded consensus which has turned its back on these speeds. If you hanker after Sibelius at a Golovanov-like pace then this is for you. Certainly, there's no gainsaying the excitement van Kempen inculcates and radiates at this pace. It's an early recording of a work then only several decades old but later versions left this conductor's example abandoned at the roadside. For me this still makes for a stimulating listen … but only once in a while. My admiration for Mravinsky's Leningrad Phil and Ormandy Philadelphia, more expansive yet intense versions, has not been supplanted. Give me those two alternatives' upward yearning radiance and primeval tragic brass. Was van Kempen's No. 7 accelerated, I wonder, to fit into the final side of four of a 1950s LP set which had the Bruckner Fourth Symphony as its principal offering? I should add that Mahler's Fourth with the Hilversum Radio Philharmonic (Telefunken) is on Pristine PASC466.

Rob Barnett

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

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