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Wilhelm Kempff (piano)
Piano Recitals in France
rec. 1955/1961
MELOCLASSIC MC1053 [78:08 + 69:18]

These two piano recitals, set down in Besanšon in 1955 and Saint-Malo in 1961, come on the back of another 2 CD set released by Meloclassic about three years ago, also titled “Recitals in France” and recorded between 1959 and 1967 (review). Once again, the repertoire chosen sits well within Kempff’s comfort zone, with Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann being the mainstays. As with the previous release, these live recordings provide a valuable and welcome addition to the pianist’s discography.

Two works are common to this twofer and the previous one. Handel’s G major, HWV 435 is the opening work in the 1961 Saint-Malo recital. Kempff makes a much better job of it here than he did two years previously in July 1959 at Divonne-les-Bains, which was a rough and ready performance marred by many finger slips. Also, the sound on this latest traversal is much improved. Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 18 in E flat major, Op 31 No 3 also features in both recitals. Interpretively both performances are very similar, but again in 1961 the audio quality is better.

Beethoven’s Op 109 is a profound a deeply spiritual reading. In a recording of the composer’s late sonatas recorded by Kempff in 1925–1936 and released by APR, which I reviewed back in 2016, I commented with regard to this sonata: “Owing to the limitations of the 78 recording process, the variation movement of Op 109 is shorn of its repeats”. Fortunately they are all present here and the balance is restored. The sunny mien of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A major, D.664 has secured its popularity. Kempff captures the melancholy and bittersweet elements of the central Andante, whilst the finale brims over with effervescence and sparkle.

I’ve always enjoyed the Schumann recordings Kempff made for DG. His approach is improvisatory, introspective and rhapsodic, contrasting the “Florestan” and “Eusebius” aspects of his character. The ╔tudes symphoniques, Op 13 are performed without the five Posthumous ╔tudes restored by Brahms in 1890. The Theme has a commanding presence with each of the subsequent variations characterful. There’s drama and energy on the one hand, and lyricism and richness of expression on the other. The other composer Kempff excelled in was Brahms, and the 1955 Besanšon recital contains a complete Op 116. Stormy power and urgency inform No 1, whilst No 2 and No 4 are tender and dreamy. No 3’s cascading passage work is passionate, with the same potency conveyed in No 7.

Kempff penned a good few piano transcriptions of works by Bach and it’s pleasing that a couple are included. By far the best known and most performed is the Siciliano from the Flute Sonata, BWV 1031. This is followed by the Chorale Wachet auf! Here we can hear them straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, shaped with sensitivity, intimacy and poetic eloquence.

This 2 disc set comes with exemplary booklet notes, courtesy of Michael Waiblinger, offering some biographical background to the pianist. The well-preserved sources of the recordings offer a pleasant aural experience. These precious documents reveal a pianist of formidable musical intellect and elevated musicianship.

Stephen Greenbank

CD 1 [78:08]
H─NDEL: The Harmonious Blacksmith, HWV 430
BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No 30 in E major, Op 109
SCHUBERT: Piano Sonata in A major, D 664
LISZT: FunÚrailles, HS 173/7
LISZT: Les jeux d’eaux Ó la Villa d’Este, HS 163/4
BRAHMS: 7 Fantasien, Op 116
Recorded ∙ 02 September 1955 ∙ Besanšon ∙ ThÚÔtre Municipal ∙ RTF ∙ Live Recording

CD 2 [69:18]
H─NDEL: Chaconne in G major, HWV 435
BACH/KEMPFF: Siciliano from Flute Sonata, BWV 1031
BACH/KEMPFF: Chorale Wachet auf! from Cantata, BWV 140
BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No 18 in E-flat major, Op 31 No 3
BRAHMS: Romance in F major, Op 118 No 5
BRAHMS: Intermezzo in B-flat minor, Op 117 No 2
BRAHMS: Intermezzo in C major, Op 119 No 3
SCHUMANN: ╔tudes Symphoniques, Op 13
Recorded ∙ 21 July 1961 ∙ Saint-Malo ∙ Casino Municipal ∙ RTF ∙ Live Recording

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