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Kempff Polydor 5638
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Wilhelm Kempff (piano)
Bach, Mozart, Schubert & Schumann: The complete Polydor recordings 1927-36
rec. 1927-1936
APR 5638 [74:38]

At the beginning of his essay, booklet writer Stephen Siek recounts an amusing anecdote of Wilhelm Kempff, one of eleven passengers arriving in Buenos Aires on the airship Graf Zeppelin in 1934. The event drew a crowd of thousands, and the Argentine Government declared a school holiday. This was just a stopover, as the then thirty-eight-year-old pianist was to continue on to his final destination Rio de Janiero to make his South American debut. Dragged out of bed in his pyjamas, he was escorted to the radio cabin. In response to a question why he was performing in Rio’s small Teatro Odeon rather than in the larger Buenos Aires’ iconic Theatro Colón, he replied “Still too little known. Small pianist, small theatre”.

Kempff’s Polydor recordings span the years 1922 and 1943, with those set down between 1922 and 1926 using the acoustic process. Then ‘electrical’ recordings made an appearance and Kempff remade some of his early recordings, using this new process. His recordings for Poydor are dominated by Beethoven, and he set down his interpretations of twenty-four of the thirty-two Sonatas in addition to four of the Concertos. I’ve had the good fortune to review APR’s previous releases containing this part of the pianist’s discography (APR6018, APR6019, APR7403). This latest release mops up the remaining Polydors with works by Bach, Mozart, Schubert and Schumann.

The Bach selection begins with a delightful reading of the French Suite No 5 in G major, BWV 816. Apart from the gavotte and bourrée, repeats are eschewed. The courante is taken at breakneck speed whilst, in the sarabande that follows, Kempff’s tone is richly pointed. The final gigue bristles with verve and vigour. Of the three Preludes and Fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1 two, namely the C-sharp major and the D major, were also set down acoustically in 1923. There are two further versions of the D major here from 1928 and 1931. Of the two, I find the 1928 version more involved and probing. Sadly, the Italian Concerto only features the opening movement, nevertheless Kempff performs it in a sprightly and animated manner with ample gusto.

The Bach selection is completed with four of the pianist’s own transcriptions. How wonderfully he sculpts the melody in the Largo from the Concerto No 5 in F minor, keeping the chordal accompaniment quiet and sustained. In Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme the enchanting counter-melody is eloquently shaped and profiled, whilst Wir danken dir, Gott is illuminated with granite-like organ sonorities.

Siek states in his notes that Kempff recorded very few of Mozart’s solo piano works, and the A major Sonata K331 we have here is the only sonata he recorded in the electrical era. It’s probably the best known and frequently played of the all Mozart’s sonatas. The siciliano-like melody of the theme of the varaition movement has sufficient grace and charm, and the variations are nicely characterized. The Rondo alla Turca is buoyant, sprightly and rhythmically charged. The Schubert/Liszt/Kempff Ständchen 'Horch, horch! die Lerch' sparkles with glistening filigree. Schubert’s Impromptu in B flat I found disappointing, as it sounds rather pedestrian and staid, especially the fourth variation. Schumann’s Aufschwung soars with compelling urgency, whilst Träumerei truly lives up to its dreamy character with its calming and soothing demeanour.

The superb transfers, expertly restored, come courtesy of Mark Obert-Thorn who, once again, has worked his magic highlighting the range and colour of Kempff’s tone. Stephen Siek’s excellent booklet contribution supplies all the background and context. All told, this is a release well-worth investigating.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: Rob Challinor

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
French Suite No 5 BWV.816 (1722-5) [8:49]
Prelude and Fugue Book 1 No 3 in C-sharp minor, BWV.848 (1722) [3:20]
Prelude and Fugue Book 1 No 5 in D major, BWV.850 (1722) [2:58]
Prelude and Fugue Book 1 No 5 in D major, BWV.850 (1722) [3:04]
Italian Concerto – first movement, BWV.971 (1735) [3:33]
Johann Sebastian BACH arr. Wilhelm KEMPFF (1895-1991)
Largo from Keyboard Concerto in F minor, BWV.1056 (1738) [4:14]
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV.645 (1748-49) [5:00]
Siciliano from Sonata for flute and clavier in E-flat major, BWV.1031 (1730-24) [2:52]
Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir, BWV.29 (1731) [3:51]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Sonata in A major, K.331 (1783) [15:28]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828) arr. Franz LISZT (1811-1886) and Wilhelm KEMPFF
Ständchen 'Horch, horch! die Lerch', S.558 No 9 (1876) [2:41]
Moments musicaux in F minor, D.780 No 3 (1823) [2:03]
Moments musicaux in C-sharp minor, D.780 No 4 (1823) [3:36]
Impromptu in B-flat major, D.935 No 3 (1827) [6:50]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Aufschwung - Fantasiestücke Op 12 No 2 (1837) [3:08]
Träumerei – Kinderszenen Op 17 No 7 (1838) [3:00]

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