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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor, Op 37 (1803-4) [35:42]
Piano Concerto No 4 in G major, Op 58 (1805-6) [33:17]
Wilhelm Kempff (piano)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Paul van Kempen
rec. May 1953, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin

This disc of recordings from May 1953, continues Wilhelm Kempff’s mono cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Paul van Kempen. I reviewed Volume 1, which contained the first two Concertos, in April 2021. As mentioned, these recordings were issued on CD by Deutsche Grammophon and the complete cycle was reviewed by Jonathan Woolf in November 2006. I have both the earlier cycle of 1953 and the later stereo set in a 14CD DG boxed set of all Kempff’s concerto recordings. This also includes works by Mozart, Schumann, Brahms, Liszt and interestingly, in this context, his first Beethoven concerto recordings: Nos 1, 3 and 4, again under van Kempen, and No 5 The Emperor, from 1936 with Peter Raebe (1872-1945). These latter recordings, from the days of shellac, are also in my collection, with some solo pieces; all part of a double CD (APR 6019) of “The Pre-War and Wartime 78 rpm recordings 1925-1942” (Jonathan Woolf review) and Stephen Greenbank (review). I note that the third CD PASC641 of this collection will offer both the 1953 Emperor and its 1936 predecessor. Those who wish to purchase all 3 CDs as a set are catered for, at a discount, by PABX037. I also have the complete mono Sonatas to review PABX033; those I’ve sampled sound splendid.

As I said, in April, for many classical enthusiasts, 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 (he died in 1991), so his stereo recordings were made when he was nearly seventy. Ten years earlier he set down sets of both in mono which some regard more highly. There is also the “conductor question”. In 1962, Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonic, was conducted by Ferdinand Leitner (1912-1966). Doughty though Leitner was, in 1953, Furtwängler’s BPO was directed, shortly before his relatively early death, by Paul van Kempen (1893-1955), father of ’cellist Christopher van Kempen (1945-1997), distinguished soloist and chamber musician. I rate van Kempen as a very fine conductor, though his war record was such that his concert with The Concertgebouw, on Saturday 27 January 1951 was disrupted by stink bombs, firecrackers and shouting from the audience. The concert on Sunday, 28 January. did not even start, when it became clear that it too would be disrupted. His “Complete Philips Recordings”, 10 CD set on Eloquence was given a very positive review, again by Jonathan Woolf: “a great advantage to admirers of van Kempen. Snap it up”. So, I snapped. In June 1979, Richard Osborne, writing in “The Gramophone”, stated “There has never been a more miraculous set of the Beethoven piano concertos than this”. This is a very bold statement and reflects a view not universally held. The present disc is very fine indeed, and sounds generally excellent in this recent transfer. However there’s considerable competition. To avoid a review of gargantuan length, I’ll just mention, as well as the Kempff/Leitner stereo set, a box that I reviewed on its reissue in January 2007: that of Daniel Barenboim and Otto Klemperer (EMI now Warners). That was recorded in December 1967. It was referred to by Jonathan Woolf in his DG review. I regard it as very special indeed. I should add that I’ve always had a soft spot for the great British pianist Solomon and for Claudio Arrau who recorded the concertos three times.

Let’s address the sound quality of the present Kempff recordings. Andrew Rose says that the “earlier recordings weren't badly made. A little reverberant for their era, perhaps, and with a sound quality that even by 1957, just four years after the recordings were made, was drawing criticisms in The Gramophone which opined that "it is not in any case quite DGG's best quality, with a resonance that does not sound natural to my ears, and rather tinny sounds at the top of the keyboard." Listening to Concerto No 3, I found the piano sound very tangible and can appreciate Kempff’s physical prowess and the thought behind it. Jonathan did say that “the strings suffer from an endemic swimmy-ness as well which leads to a lack of real focus and bloom.” I have to say, that despite considerable improvement, I found that the Berlin strings lacked full focus; there is a limit to what technology is able to do with a recording of 68 years vintage. It is noticeable but didn’t prevent me enjoying very much the splendid performance. In particular, that magical moment towards the end of the first movement when the piano plays quite softly and the orchestra conjures up the image of sea birds above the waves. It was also a feature of Barenboim/Klemperer. The slow movement Largo has often been held in high regard and one can enjoy it more than ever. The fact that the CD avoids breaks between movements, means that the change from Largo to Rondo can be fully appreciated, which wasn’t the case in its 1979 LP incarnation.

JW declared that his favourite among the concertos would probably be the fourth. Mine would always be the Emperor but here he wasn’t so impressed. He was not keen on Kempff crafting his own cadenzas, and this was a criticism that has also been levied at the 1962 stereo set, particularly in the finale. They don’t worry me, overmuch; I’ve always felt that they were indicative of Kempff’s individuality whilst being true, on the whole to the spirit of Beethoven. Right from the start, I felt everything was in accord and Kempff is in magisterial form and the orchestra beautifully placed. The sound of the latter, allowing for nearly seventy years, is one to which the ear easily adjusts. This performance again illustrates van Kempen as a very sympathetic conductor and one in clear partnership with the pianist. At the other end of the scale was the infamous Tchaikovsky Concerto on DG with Sviatoslav Richter totally at odds with Herbert von Karajan. Andrew Rose has been highly successful in expressing the ambience of the Jesus-Christus-Kirche in Berlin which adds to the enjoyment and enabled me to feel that this was a comparatively recent recording rather than a creaky historic document. There’s something momentous about the commencement of the Andante con Moto which has an almost spiritual intensity which is not always the case in recordings. I assume that this was recorded in one take; it certainly gives that impression. I must again pay compliment to the sound of the piano which was very perceptible; the orchestral sound also seemed fine here. The Rondo finale continues the feeling of “occasion” that this set has always engendered, a triumphant ending and eccentric cadenzas again but I find them rather endearing. I’m certainly happy to give it the adjective “miraculous” and I feel very fortunate to be in a position to review this glorious recording.

I enjoyed hearing these recordings but note the slight reservation mentioned above which was also inherent in the original. These have been regarded as one of the finest sets of Beethoven concerto performances for nigh on seventy years and I expect they will continue to do so, especially in such splendid re-mastering. I very much look forward to hearing the third CD which will contain two Kempff Emperors. I can’t wait!
David R Dunsmore

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