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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 RECORDINGS 5638 [74:38]

I will confess that I have never really attended to the recordings of Wilhelm Kempff. When I was younger it was the grand romantics that filled my ears; Liszt and Leschetizky pupils like Moriz Rosenthal, Ignacy Jan Paderewski and Ignaz Friedman or more recent firebrands like Georges Cziffra. Repertoire too tended towards the romantics and their unsung byways and these reasons combined to the point that unconsciously I had not sought out or properly listened to any of Kempff's performances. This release was something of a surprise then – well two surprises actually; firstly I hardly expected the booklet's opening salvo to be an anecdote about Kempff's arrival in the skies above Buenos Aires onboard the airship Graf Zeppelin and its amusing portrait of the pianist, still in pyjamas participating in a radio broadcast at 3am. Secondly I was not prepared for the virtuosic and quite romantic playing I heard, especially in the utterly delightful version of Liszt's transcription of Schubert's Horch, horch die Lerch chock-full of Kempff's own shimmering arabesques. These two surprises do not necessarily match up under scrutiny; the Zeppelin flight that brought Kempff to his South American debut in Rio de Janeiro – Buenos Aires was just a stopover – undoubtedly took place in 1934 and the Schubert/Liszt wasn't recorded until 1935 so despite the comprehensive attention given to this biographical anecdote there remains an underlying mystery. It should not worry us overmuch; it makes for a lovely story and the glorious pianism remains. Beethoven dominates Kempff's Polydor recordings, made between 1922 and 1943; he recorded 24 of the 32 Sonatas, some of them many times and four of the Concertos; at least one version of these has so far been released by APR to great acclaim (APR6018, APR6018, APR6019, APR6019, APR7403 and APR7403). On this release APR have collected together the remainder of the electrical discs that he made for Polydor between 1927 and 1936.

The set starts with a selection of Bach, including 4 works that he had previously recorded by the acoustic process in 1923 and 1924. It also includes only the second complete recording of the G major French Suite (Harry Cumpson recorded it for US Columbia a year earlier). This is played virtually without repeats – they only appear in the gavotte and bourrée - and is characterised by brisk tempo, especially in the fleet gigue while still achieving an enviable lightness of touch. He doesn't linger in the sarabande though there are a couple of bars that sound a little stiff and there is a fairly romantic ritardando at the end. Two of the Well-tempered clavier are later versions of acoustic recordings made in 1923. There is real clarity and warmth in the playing without the mannerisms that affect some other Bach readings of this period. There are romantic touches such as the octave doublings and grand manner in parts of the D major fugue, the ever so slightly accentuated bass line in the 1931 version of the D major prelude and the silky smoothness of the same prelude both recordings. The D major fugue features some wonderful dynamic layering that fits in perfectly with almost organ-like textures that he seems to be aiming for. I love his Italian Concerto movement, bursting with character and covering a huge dynamic range from gruff opening theme to passages played in a veiled hush that still manages to convey clarity and rhythmic energy. Completing this Bach selection are four of Kempff's own transcription, all masterfully voiced; just listen to his glorious floating cantabile in the Largo from the F minor keyboard concerto or the flute siciliano. Kempff was a great admirer of Eugen D'Albert and Ferruccio Busoni and their spirit lives on in his transcriptions of Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme and the energetic Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir, the latter more familiar in Rachmaninov's transcription from the E major Partita, though where that is very much a work re-imagined for the piano Kempff's transcription emulates the power and voicing of an organ.

Mozart is represented by just three works among Kempff's early recordings; apart from the Sonata recorded here there is the D minor Concerto K.466 and the Rondo K.382. His Mozart is playful and direct with some romantic rubato at times; if a couple of the ritardandi sound a bit stiff that is a minor point. He chooses a fine tempo for the famous alla turca, joyful without being driven and in the trio of the minuetto Kempff produces magical almost musical-box echoes with pedal and hushed piano tones, a hushed tone that can be heard in parts of the Bach Preludes and Fugues as well as in variation 4 of Schubert's B-flat Impromptu, a variation played slightly slower than I am used to hearing it, but to good effect. I am envious of his pearly smooth scales in the final variation as well as his simple and sublime Träumerei that rounds off the disc and it is safe to say his Schubert and Schumann are as distinctive as anything here. And the Schubert/Liszt purportedly played over the South American airwaves? This is a miracle of legerdemain and the kind of sorcery that elicits rapturous plaudits when heard from the likes of Arkadi Volodos. It fits marvellously alongside Liszt's arrangement and actually supplants some of Liszt's heavier writing with gossamer figurations that are all the more impressive for their delicacy and precision at a miraculous pianissimo.

I am so glad APR have given me and others the chance to hear these rare recordings and to open my eyes at least to a pianist who is so communicative and has such colour, vigour and ravishing singing tone. The sound is spectacular in these transfers by Mark Obert-Thorn and allows one to savour all aspects of Kempff's keyboard colour, voicing and utter clarity while Stephen Siek's booklet notes, complete with a reproduction of a poster advertising Kempff's Rio de Janeiro concerts, are comprehensive and display a real affection for this wonderful pianist.

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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