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Wilhelm Kempff (piano)
The Decca Legacy
rec. 1935-61
ELOQUENCE 484 2267 [13 CDs: 809]

Elements of Kempff’s discography have been well attended to of late. The DGs have seldom been out of the catalogues and APR has restored his 1927-36 Polydors. Decca too has restored many items, a number of which have been reviewed on this site. Eloquence’s 13-CD box, however, offers a secure tranche of recordings spanning the years 1949-58, from 78s to stereo LPs, that presents a one stop shop of Kempff’s British recordings.

The first two discs trace the sometimes problematic nature of his early recordings for Decca, which had begun with the company’s push for international artists – they signed Backhaus at almost the same time as Kempff. Some of his 1949 sides were remade in 1953 so we get duplications of his four arrangements of Bach and the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue. The 78s used for the 1949 sides preserve typically thistly Decca surface but a couple are taken from tape and sound better. Herlich tut mich verlangen sounds surprisingly good, in fact. Incidentally if you happen to have Kempff’s famous transcription of the Siciliano from the Flute Sonata, BWV1931 on Decca K28223, recorded in 1949, not the later remake, I’d contact Decca, as no one seems to have a copy. In 1950 and again in 1955 he turned to some Baroque Favourites by Couperin, Rameau and Handel which might come as a small surprise to those who still think of him in rather strictly Germanic terms. He was still starting recitals in the 60s with these three composers – see SWR for evidence of that tendency (review).

CD 3 contains the two Mozart Concertos he recorded with Karl Münchinger, which I’ve already recently reviewed in the context of the Münchinger Eloquence box (review). The next disc centres on two Schubert sonatas which was reviewed by William Hedley when it appeared as a single CD (review). The deterioration inherent in the opening bars of D.960 have proved to be ineradicable but this imperfection doesn’t last long and like William Hedley I find Kempff’s interpretation both eloquent and resilient, and his rubati a matter of fascination. Given that D.960 comes from a 1950 session you’ll hear more sheerly beautiful performances from later in his career but D.845, from 1953, proves slightly more persuasive, not least sonically, and manages to find more clarity and poetry than he was to do in his DG remake.

CD 5 is all-Schumann. Papillons is beautifully modulated and the Arabeske notable for the pellucid beauty of its central section but perhaps the greatest performance in this disc is that of the Concerto. He was accompanied by Josef Krips in Kingsway Hall in 1953 and Krips manages to encourage the LSO - then not an orchestra in the rudest of health and prone to sectional indiscipline, to put things mildly – to give of their best in support of their refined and spirited soloist.

The next two discs are devoted to Chopin, a tantalising and up-and-down element of his discography. He was never the note-perfect artist and you’ll encounter numerous slips throughout these discs, mostly trivial, unless you are the stern kind of auditor who requires your performances to be slip-free. CD 6 represents the parting of the ways with Decca. It contains the Second Sonata, in a very problematic reading. The dropped notes unsettle and there’s a feeling of stylistic impasse in the first movement. The thickening textures in the Funeral March contrast with the languid and lucid refinement of its central panel but the stolid tempo for the finale fatally compromises a reading already more of a curio than anything. The remainder of the programme is more convincing, and the Fantaisie-Impromptu is probably the best of the lot. CD 7 contains the Third Sonata and finds Kempff on more orderly and effective form as he is in the rest of these 1958 sessions, though there are notable slips in the Fantaisie in F Minor.

Discs 8 and 9 are devoted to one of his greatest reportorial strengths, Liszt. CD 8 is especially remarkable, in which he takes a select sequence of solo works and vests them with drama predicated on a poetic lyricism shorn of all extraneous detail. The two Légendes are notable examples of his art, St François de Paul marchant sur le flots especially so; not cast iron in technique maybe, but that’s more than compensated for by virtue of his sense of poetic colour and controlled passion.

Christopher Howell reviewed the Liszt concertos, as he did the Schumann and Mozart concertos, when they appeared in a box set devoted to Kempff’s 1950s concerto discs (review) almost twenty years ago. Like him, I have great admiration for this brace of recordings, for the interlacing of soloist and conductor – Fistoulari is on especially good form and, like Krips, drags the LSO with him.

The last three discs are devoted to the music of Brahms. As with the Bach examples in the first disc, Kempff remade the Rhapsodies, first recorded in 1950, in 1953. Incidentally there’s a typo in the track listing in the booklet which states that the Op.117 sequence in CD 11 was recorded in 1950 whereas as the discographic details beneath demonstrates, were actually recorded in 1953.The 1950 sequence is correctly identified in CD 10. I’ve never been wholly won over by Kempff’s Brahms, at least in these Deccas. There’s a rather cavalier, sloppy approach to Op.79 and throughout Op.118 there are examples of over-strenuous playing, elsewhere rubati robbing the music of genuine momentum. These are very individual matters, and you may well be more sympathetic. In any case you will be pleased to find two previously unissued alternative takes of Op.118 No.6, which I assume are direct from the Decca vaults.

The final disc, CD 13, is something of an appendix. It offers three examples of Kempff the accompanist. The first dates from Prades in 1961, live in stereo (on a Philips LP), and features Casals and Kempff in Beethoven’s Op.5 No.1 sonata. A collaboration such as this is treasurable though you’ll have to put up with some intonational inexactitude from the cellist and his grunting. The Rondo is the better played movement. A rather more authoritative meeting of near-equals is the Cello Sonata Op.69 where Kempff joins the esteemed erstwhile cellist of the Busch Quartet, Paul Grümmer, who had been replaced in the group in 1930. This 1936 set was made for Grammophon/Polydor and houses a performance of reserved strength. The final collaboration sees Kempff join Georg Kulenkampff for the Kreutzer Sonata, made in 1935 again for Grammophon/Polydor. When Kempff remade this in the 1950s with Schneiderhan, it took 40 minutes. With the Hanseatic violinist he got through it in 30. It sounds to me that Kulenkampff was fractionally under recorded - he sometimes struggles to make himself heard – but that’s not a problem with the piano, to the destabilisation of balance but to the advantage of Kempff-listeners.

The remastering has been very effective, and the booklet contains fine essays from Michael Steinberg, Michael Gray and Alfred Brendel. This solid looking box offers just under 13 hours of music-making in original jacketed form, a box that consolidates Kempff’s mid-period Decca recordings in splendid, authoritative fashion.

Jonathan Woolf

CD 1
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and Handel; Couperin; Rameau; Beethoven; Brahms
Recording Location: Tracks 1-5, Decca Studios, West Hampstead, London, UK, 25 October 1949, Tracks 6-13, Decca Studios, West Hampstead, London, UK, 24 March 1950 (Rameau: Musette en Rondeau, Brahms), 23 May 1955 (Handel, Couperin, Rameau: Le Rappel des oiseaux, Beethoven)

CD 2
Johann Sebastian Bach
Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, BWV 903; Chorale-Preludes (arr. Kempff)
Recording Location: Decca Studios, West Hampstead, London, UK, 30 March 1953

CD 3
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Piano Concertos Nos. 9 & 15
Winds from the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and Stuttgarter Kammerorchster/Karl Münchinger
Recording Location: Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland, September 1953

CD 4
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Piano Sonatas Nos. 16 & 21
Recording Location: Decca Studios, West Hampstead, London, UK, 31 March 1953 (D.845), 10 November 1950 (D.960)

CD 5
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Papillons; Arabeske; Piano Concerto
London Symphony Orchestra/Josef Krips
Recording Locations: Kingsway Hall, London, UK, 26–27 March 1953 (Piano Concerto); Decca Studios, West Hampstead, London, UK, 5 November 1951 (Papillons, Arabeske)

CD 6
Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849)
Piano Sonata No. 2; Impromptus; Berceuse; Barcarolle; Nocturne Op. 9 No. 3; Scherzo No. 3
Recording Location: Decca Studio 1, West Hampstead, London, UK, 24–28 February 1958 STEREO

CD 7
Fryderyk Chopin
Piano Sonata No. 3; Ballade No. 3; Andante spianato et Grande polonaise brillante; Fantaisie; Polonaise-Fantaisie
Recording Location: Decca Studio 1, West Hampstead, London, UK, 24–28 February 1958 STEREO

CD 8
Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
LISZT Années de pèlerinage (excerpts); Deux Légendes
Recording Location: Decca Studios, West Hampstead, London, UK, 13 November 1950, Tracks 1-8 Recording Location: Decca Studios, West Hampstead, London, UK, 5 November 1951, Tracks 9-11

CD 9
Franz Liszt
Piano Concerto Nos. 1 & 2
London Symphony Orchestra/Anatole Fistoulari
Recording Location: Kingsway Hall, London, UK, 2 & 4 June 1954

CD 10
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Rhapsodies, Op. 79; Intermezzi, Op. 117; Klavierstücke, Op. 118
Recording Location: West Hampstead Studios, London, UK, 23 March 1950 (Op. 118), 24 March 1950 (Op. 79, Op. 117)

CD 11
Johannes Brahms
Ballades, Op. 10; Klavierstücke, Op. 76; Rhapsodies, Op. 79; Intermezzi, Op. 117
Recording Location: Decca Studios, West Hampstead, London, UK, 23 & 26 November 1953

CD 12
Johannes Brahms
Fantasias, Op. 116; Klavierstücke, Op. 119
Recording Location: West Hampstead Studios, London, UK, 23, 26, 27 May 1953

CD 13
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Cello Sonata, Op. 5 No. 1
Pablo Casals (cello)
Recording Location: Prades, France, July 1961, LIVE STEREO
Cello Sonata, Op. 69
Paul Grümmer (cello)
Recording Location: Alte Jakobstraße – Raum IX, Berlin, 24 July 1936
Violin Sonata Op. 47 ‘Kreutzer’
Georg Kulenkampff (violin)
Recording Location: Germany, 27 May 1935

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