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S & H Recital Review
J S Bach, Schubert, Chopin: Freddy Kempf (pf), Wigmore Hall, 6th January 2001 (MB)

J S Bach, Partita No. 4 in D major BWV828
Franz Schubert, Piano Sonata in A major D959
Fryderyk Chopin, Ballades Nos. 1 –4 in G minor, F major, A flat major & F minor


This sold out afternoon recital, showing that Freddy Kempf is now a firm favourite with Wigmore Hall audiences, proved an interesting test of both Kempf’s physical stamina and his ability to tackle some of the supreme Everest’s of the solo piano repertoire. It was not all a success, I’m afraid – stretching from Bach, which displayed both a poverty of imagination and a fierce disregard for the music, to a mercurial and quite overwhelming performance of Chopin’s Four Ballades. Sandwiched between these two extremes was a reading of Schubert’s great A major Sonata which at times touched the sublime, almost as if the hand of the composer were resting on the pianist’s young shoulders guiding him through this turbulent and emotional work.

Kempf may grow into Bach – or he might not. This performance of the D major Partita lacked depth from start to finish and did not manoeuvre naturally between the movements. Rarely have I encountered Bach playing which seemed so self-consciously objective, particularly between the notes. Dynamics were sometimes beautifully captured but this remained a decidedly frost-bound interpretation – and one that seemed to suffer from over-pedalling, muffling the sound as if clothed beneath a blanket. Bach really needs greater clarity than it was given here.

Schubert’s A major was a very different matter. Here, Kempf approached this difficult work with a certain degree of empathy, seemingly at one with the manic-depressiveness of the composer and the shifting tides of emotions so central to this sonata. Again there was a problem with notes not sounding as exposed as they should but this was more than compensated for by a bewildering use of colour and tapestry. He began the Andantino with quite astonishingly subtle finger-work, and he was compelling in lulling his audience into that false sense of security the movement deliberately sets up. It was little short of hypnotic, but I would have relished even greater contrast in the central section’s eruption of rage. The violence was not so much volcanic as seething – and yet, the trills and hammer-blows came off magnificently. The Scherzo fizzed and the long Rondo was given depth to develop. This has the makings of a great interpretation.

What is now already a great interpretation is his reading of the Four Ballades. This was Chopin playing of extraordinary finesse – and was given in spades the clarity his Bach and Schubert conspicuously lacked: even the deepest, most shadow-bound notes were given a crispness that was beguiling. The playing was visibly thrilling, the contrasts between the reflective and ferocious stunning. More impressively, he made a persuasive argument for playing the set by grasping the essential differences in poetry and structure which other pianists find difficult to sufficiently contrast. No. 1 was darkly brooding and swamped in delirious colour, No. 2 was both dream and nightmare, No. 3 was lyrical and self-contained, even though the virtuosity vaulted down the keyboard like gymnasts, and No. 4 was a fascinating contrast of composure and restlessness.

This was by any stretch of the imagination quite wonderful playing – and quite puts in the shade his recent recording on BIS of the Four Ballades. On the right day, Kempf has extraordinary prowess at the keyboard making him the equal of any pianist in the world in his chosen repertoire, and very much better than many so-called illustrious keyboard giants. I am also more sure than ever that Kempf is best heard live than in the studio where he seems slightly more reserved, almost inhibited in fact. A live recording I have of Kempf playing Beethoven, Schumann and Rachmaninov at Shirakawa Hall in Nagoya (repertoire he has recorded in the studio on his three first discs) confirms this impression. BIS should take note because Kempf remains one of the most interesting of today’s younger generation. Those who have never heard him live are being given a somewhat limited impression of what he really sounds like.

Marc Bridle

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