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Paul van Kempen (conductor)
Complete Philips Recordings
rec. 1947-1955
No texts
ELOQUENCE 484 0237 [10 CDs: 766 mins]

Paul van Kempen (1893-1955) had a strange career and his relatively early death deprived him of the chance to make his mark in the stereo age. He has always been admired by collectors for his accompanying role, from the Berlin-made Dvořák Violin Concerto set with Příhoda (see review) to the Beethoven Piano Concertos with Kempff (see review) but the intermittently available nature of his legacy has meant that his symphonic and orchestral LPs have not always been as visible as they might have been, notwithstanding that he was represented on a Philips ‘The Early Years’ set, a release that shares a number of the items that can be found on this generously produced 10 CD set from Eloquence.

Perhaps ‘strange’ as regards his career is not the mot juste. Controversial, certainly. He was originally a violinist and joined the Concertgebouw Orchestra in that role in 1913 under Mengelberg, to whom he is inevitably compared. He sought a conducting career in Germany from 1920 onwards becoming a German citizen in 1932 as a precondition for taking over the orchestra in Oberhausen. Though he applied for Dutch positions throughout the 1930s – Utrecht and The Hague – his career was focused on Germany. In 1943 DG recorded him with the Concertgebouw but after the war he was unexpectedly given the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic to conduct. When he directed the Concertgebouw in Verdi’s Requiem in January 1951 the performance was interrupted by audience objections - firecrackers and shouting. In The Hague a few days later tear gas was thrown in another anti-Kempen demonstration. The perception of his ambivalent position in the war lingered until his death. Unpopular but admired for his professionalism by his Netherlands Radio forces, things soldiered on with standards constantly rising. And yet disparities remained. However much one associates van Kempen with Amsterdam, largely via the legacy of his discs, the fact is that during the last decade of his life he only directed the Concertgebouw twice in concert; he conducted the Berlin Philharmonic just once. For the rest he was busy with his radio orchestra and guest conducting.

Was he the ‘pocket Mengelberg’ that Haitink has suggested? This boxed set offers a near-decade’s worth of mono discs to allow one to sift the evidence. The first two discs offer his Hilversum sessions, largely overtures, preludes and intermezzi and vocal accompaniments. The former include three extracts from Lohengrin, the expected Italian contingent – Masagni’s Cavalleria rusticana Intermezzo prominent – and a slew of operatic arias, mainly sung by soprano Erna Spoorenberg though Gré Brouwenstijn is represented too, as is baritone Theo Baylé. The most important item on these first two discs, though, and by far, is Tansman’s 1950 oratorio Isaïe, le Prophète. Tansman’s inspiration was the dual one of the Shoah and the foundation of the state of Israel. It’s sung in French – there are no texts in the booklet – by tenor Cornelis Kalkman and the splendidly trained voices of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Chorus. The work makes a profound and pungent, Stravinsky-influenced impression, with threnodic tread, fugal command, and agitated orchestral and vocal writing. Kalkman apparently sang in the chorus and was a very fine singer.

The Concertgebouw sessions were largely given over to Tchaikovsky and are relatively well-known elements of the conductor’s legacy, having been reissued more than once. The Pathétique is on disc three and was the Concertgebouw’s first Philips LP. The opening is somewhat nondescript but once past that the reading is pungent and largely admirable. Recorded in the month of Mengelberg’s death it’s undoubtedly modelled after the older man’s readings. Vivid though much is, it doesn’t prepare one for the significantly more interventionist ‘pre-war’ reading of the Fifth which is more explicitly Mengelbergian in its editorialising. There are timpani rewrites in the slow movement and unauthorised cymbals in the finale, which is also subject to cuts. If you can absorb these elements, which are co-opted to a fiery sense of engagement – and there are starrier names than van Kempen who routinely did this sort of thing – then you will undoubtedly get a great deal from this Concertgebouw reading. His other Tchaikovsky recordings here show him at his best and at his worst. The Capriccio italien is given a merciless buffeting and the Marche slave is driven hell for leather. Romeo and Juliet is full of loving warmth and a much better index of his control in this composer’s music. Van Kempen certainly had odd rushes of blood – I’m thinking of his Sibelius 7, to be heard elsewhere than here, which is the fastest account on disc that I know and whilst revealing as an act of orchestral discipline completely self-destructive as a performance. Something of this infects his Tchaikovsky so prepare yourself for his 1955 recording of the Serenade for Strings with the Lamoureux orchestra, housed in CD 8, the opening movement of which is both absurdly rushed off its feet and rhythmically choppy.

His Berlin sessions with the Philharmonic offered a sequence of overtures somewhat along the lines of those he recorded in Hilversum; there was clearly a bits-and-pieces element to his LP programme building – Hebrides, Consecration of the House and Rossini’s William Tell - and a sequence of nine of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances and a very respectable Academic Festival Overture. The meat is provided by Max Reger’s Hiller Variations – interpretatively as perceptive as Keilberth but better played – and three Beethoven Symphonies. Of these the Eroica is the standout for its powerful sense of linear direction and tensile expressive drama, complete with a truly shattering funeral march. The Seventh’s proportions are finely sculpted, and its Allegretto is astutely negotiated but there’s nothing truly distinctive about it nor is the Eighth, marvellously played though it is.

Along with that eccentrically paced Tchaikovsky Serenade the Paris sessions saw the expected overtures; a repeat of the William Tell overture he’d recorded just a few years earlier in Berlin and more Mendelssohn but this time the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not a remake of the Hebrides. He and the French orchestra also recorded Tchaikovsky’s Mozartiana. The biggest single undertaking in the box is the Verdi Requiem, recorded in La Scala in May 1955. He made sure to have a familiar figure with him in the shape of soprano Gré Brouwenstijn, though she sings inconsistently, as do, it has to be said, all the singers; tenor Petre Munteanu is probably the pick of the quartet technically and timbrally, perhaps even better than Maria von Ilosvay. Tempi are generally slow but the orchestral and choral forces are fine. This was the work, remember, that had been interrupted by protesters back in 1951. Ironically by the time Philips released the LP, the conductor was dead.

Though many of these recordings have been issued by Eloquence in smaller segments, their corralling in this way, in a 10 CD set, with exemplary notes by Niek Nelissen (kudos to Margaret Kofod’s translations) and full recording details, is a great advantage to admirers of van Kempen. Snap it up.

Jonathan Woolf

CD 1*
1 Oberon: Overture
GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813–1901)
2 La Forza del destino: Overture
3 Cavalleria Rusticana: Intermezzo sinfonico
RICHARD WAGNER (1813–1883)
4 Prelude to Act I
5 Prelude to Act III
6 Treulich geführt (Bridal Chorus, Act III)
Netherlands Opera Chorus · Henk van Wielink, chorus master
7–13 Isaïe, le Prophète
Cornelis Kalkman, tenor (Tansman)
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Choir (Tansman)
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
CD 2*
1–3 OFFENBACH Les Contes d’Hoffmann
4 GOUNOD Faust
6 WEBER Oberon
7 SUPPÉ Die schöne Galathee
8 JOHANN STRAUSS II Die Fledermaus
9 Aida
10–11 Nabucco
12–13 Rigoletto
14 Il trovatore
15 MASCAGNI Cavalleria Rusticana
16 LEONCAVALLO Pagliacci
17–18 PUCCINI Tosca
Gré Brouwenstijn, soprano · Erna Spoorenberg, soprano
Lidy van der Veen, mezzo-soprano
Frans Vroons, tenor · Theo Baylé, baritone
Netherlands Opera Chorus / Henk van Wielink, chorus master
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra

CD 3
1 Pagliacci: Intermezzo (Act I)*
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
2–5 Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 ‘Pathétique’
6 Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy Overture
7 Marche slave, Op. 31
CD 4
1–4 Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64
5 Capriccio italien, Op. 45
6 Overture solenelle ‘1812’, Op. 49
FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797–1828)
7 Marche militaire No. 1 in D major, D.733 (Orchestrated by Ernest Guiraud)
JOHANN STRAUSS I (1804–1849)
8 Radetzky March, Op. 228
CD 5
1 Die Weihe des Hauses – Overture, Op. 124
2 Die Hebrideen – Overture, Op. 26
3 Guillaume Tell – Overture
4 Akademische Festouvertüre, Op. 80
5–13 Nine Hungarian Dances, WoO 1
HECTOR BERLIOZ (1803–1869)
14 Benvenuto Cellini: Overture
Berliner Philharmoniker
CD 6
1–4 Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55 ‘Eroica’
5–8 Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93
Berliner Philharmoniker
CD 7
1–4 Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92
MAX REGER (1873–1916)
5–17 Variations and Fugue on a theme by Johann Adam Hiller, Op. 100
Berliner Philharmoniker
CD 8
1 Ein Sommernachtstraum – Overture, Op. 21*
2 Guillaume Tell – Overture*
3 Il barbiere di Siviglia – Overture*
4 La Fille du régiment – Overture*
5–8 Serenade for Strings in C major, Op. 48
Orchestre Lamoureux
CD 9
1–4 Suite No. 4, Op. 61 ‘Mozartiana’
Orchestre Lamoureux
GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813–1901)
5–14 Messa da Requiem (beginning)
CD 10
GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813–1901)
1–5 Messa da Requiem (conclusion)
Gré Brouwenstijn, soprano
Maria von Ilosvay, contralto
Petre Munteanu, tenor
Oskar Czerwenka, bass
Coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Roma
Bonaventura Somma, chorus master
Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Roma
RICHARD WAGNER (1813–1883)
6 Tannhäuser: Overture*
7 Der fliegende Holländer: Overture*
Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala

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