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Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Piano Concerto No. 1 in C, Op. 15 (1795) [36:58] Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat, Op. 19 (1798) [29:31]
Wilhelm Kempff (piano)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Paul van Kempen
rec. May 1953, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin PRISTINE AUDIO PASC623 [67:20]
For many classical enthusiasts, Wilhelm Kempff is synonymous with Beethoven. His complete 1960s sets of the piano concertos and piano sonatas, both on Deutsche Grammophon, have been high on the list of recommended recordings for over half a century. Kempff was born in 1895, so his stereo recordings were made when he was nearly 70. Ten years earlier he set down sets of both in mono which some regard more highly.
The Complete Sonatas have been re-mastered by Andrew Rose of Pristine and are available, either in four Volumes or complete on 8 CDs, at a discount, on PABX033 which I’ll be reviewing shortly. Wilhelm Kempff’s stereo set was with Ferdinand Leitner, also with the Berlin Philharmonic. When it was released in a DG Galleria triple CD box in 1988, it was one of the first sets of complete Beethoven Piano Concertos I bought. However, Richard Osborne reviewing the discs in “The Gramophone” alluded to the mono set, re-released on LPs, in 1979, and suggested that it was in some way more even more remarkable. Jonathan Woolf in his review of the reissue in 2006 of the complete set (on Deutsche Grammophon DG 476 5299), which I eagerly purchased, wondered whether the Berlin mono recordings could intrigue, excite and move him as much as the later traversal. Jonathan’s answer was yes, yes and yes. It was therefore with considerable anticipation that I started listening to the first disc with the two earlier Concertos, No.2 is, in fact, earlier but published afterwards. The simple answer is these patrician accounts sound splendid in their new incarnation and belie their nearly seventy years.
Right from the opening bars there is a real sense of occasion and the orchestral sound has been much more focused than previously. The listener appreciates that this is Furtwängler’s Berlin Philharmonic. Sadly his concerto appearances were limited although there is a very fine “Emperor” with Edwin Fischer and an epic Violin Concerto with Erich Rohn who was probably leading the orchestra on the present recording. When Kempff appears after the introduction there is an imperial quality which is spellbinding. The piano sound is well captured despite there being critics of the Jesus-Christus-Kirche as a venue. As the movement develops a sense of synergy emerges between Kempff and the orchestra. The growls from the wind, repeating the piano phrases, are really impressive.
I’ve loved this concerto for many years. I saw Terence Judd play it with the National Youth Orchestra on the BBC in 1969 and later that year Charles Rosen with Sir John Barbirolli in a live relay from the Proms, the conductor’s last. It seems entirely appropriate that this slightly later work is designated Number One. It may have roots in Haydn and Mozart but chiefly it's looking forward to a new century. I should mention Kempff’s cadenzas which are a little quirky but they are quite short and seem to show an individuality that confounds his reputation as being unexciting. The inspiring gem of the slow movement is beautifully played truly with “warmth and delicacy” as Jonathan confirmed. Once again the recording has been created anew by Pristine and the ambient stereo makes it much easier to enjoy. A favourite version is the epic HMV 1969 New Philharmonia release by Daniel Barenboim with Otto Klemperer (Warner) which I reviewed back in 2007. However, I think it’s fair to say that Kempff and Van Kempen are less monumental and the melody flows inevitably. After the exalted Largo Kempff gives us a joyful finale, which Beethoven no doubt would have played with gusto in Bonn. As that nineteenth century experience is unavailable, we can revel in this superlative performance. I will still want to return to Kempff’s stereo outing with Ferdinand Leitner and Karajan’s BPO in 1962 but that could certainly benefit from an improvement in the 1988 re-mastering.
Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto, published in 1798 but written prior to Number One, is definitely the underrated work of the five. I enjoy it in a great performance such as I heard at the Proms in 2010 with Paul Lewis and Paavo Järvi. His Harmonia Mundi set is highly recommendable (see review by John Quinn) but the old master is certainly up in the pantheon here. As with Piano Concerto No. 1, I will always want to consider Solomon (Cutner), whose career was destroyed by a stroke in 1956, and whose Beethoven cycle would be ideal for Pristine.
If there are any sceptics who still don’t value this work they only have to listen to this sophisticated but appropriately classical interpretation with empathetic accompaniment from Van Kempen and the Berlin Philharmonic. The years simply roll away with this fresh restoration. It’s worth recalling that Van Kempen left behind cherishable recordings of three Beethoven Symphonies reissued by Eloquence both in a double set and in a box set (review) (questionable, because of their provenance) in war-time performances of 2 and 5 on
Pristine (review by Christopher Howell) both which I would love to hear.
The first movement of No. 2 here has the conversational style that Beethoven was to use in a different context, the opening movement of String Quartet Op.18 No.2. However, what tenderness is heard after more original cadenzas to end a transcendent movement. It’s hard when listening to this expressive romance, so delicately crafted, that there could be any other interpretation. As in the slow movement of No. 1, Kempff perambulates skittishly whilst the orchestra play a truly breath-taking main theme. Time is taken wisely but there’s never a sign of indulgence. Jonathan described the finale as puckish, insouciant and alive. That final point is what I take most from hearing it now. There’s no feeling of being studio-bound. This is fresh and spontaneous. If you need a tonic in the current difficult times then this will certainly have a positive effect.
These two fine performances are now in sound that gives the listener sheer joy and you should be ready to marvel at such musicianship. My wife hearing some of it was amazed that it comes from 1953. We owe a huge debt to Andrew Rose for giving us these jewels. These recordings were always special but now can be appreciated without making allowances. It only remains to say, that I’m looking forward to hearing the remaining three concertos and listening to the contemporary recordings of the sonatas. David R Dunsmore