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Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-21.
Wilhelm Kempff (piano).
DG Collectors Edition 463 766-2 [ADD] [seven discs]

These recordings date from between 1965 and 1969, a time when there was substantially less competition for an undertaking of this nature. Now, thirty years later, the diversity and genius of Schubert's piano sonatas are very much more appreciated. These pieces have attracted the attention of many fine pianists: the names of Uchida, Pollini, Brendel, Schiff and Tirimo spring immediately to mind. Looking back across the decades, Kempff's complete traversal appears a remarkable achievement that still carries authority. As for the packaging of its present incarnation, useful notes by John Reed are complemented by a Chronological Table that helps to contextualise the sonatas and explains the various incomplete states of some of the pieces.

Deutsche Grammophon has elected to begin at the summit: CD 1 begins with the greatest of all Schubert's sonatas, the B flat, D960. Kempff shows a keen awareness of Schubert's harmonic shifts and has a wide variety of touch at his command. But a comparison of his Andante sostenuto with, for example, Uchida's (Philips 456 572-2) is to move from the earthly plane to somewhere altogether more exalted and special. Kempff's occasionally messy finale takes the edge off an interpretation that began so promisingly. All in all, the impression left is that Kempff has failed to fully come to terms with the depths of this enormous, fascinating piece.

As one works ones way through the set, it becomes clear that Kempff is substantially more at home in some sonatas than in others. His rounded (but not dull) sound suits the G major Sonata, D894 well. Here he captures the folk-like simplicity of the Menuetto and evokes pastoral piping in the finale. The tempo for the first movement is fairly brisk (the marking is Molto moderato e cantabile), but not so much so as to wholly detract from the inherent peace in the music: only occasionally does one feel that things are rushed inordinately. However, Tirimo is a full six minutes slower in this movement and projects a fuller sense of tranquillity. Also, Tirimo's finale flows much more effectively and with more of a sense of inevitability. Kempff follows D894 with the D major Sonata, D850. He has the necessary simplicity for the finale and comes up with an appropriately flowing tempo for the second movement Con moto.

The fourth disc in his set is extremely well planned: two A minor sonatas (D845 and D784) sandwich the C major, D840, the so-called Relique. The first movement of the D845 is marked Moderato, something Kempff clearly chose to ignore as the flow is distinctly hurried along. In the finale it is the vivace qualifier to the Allegro that is taken with some (anti-)Schubertian salt, the whole remaining a little lacklustre. Pollini seems much more at home in this piece (DG 419 672-2, coupled with the Wanderer Fantasy). It is up to the opening Moderato of the Relique Sonata, D840 to prove that Kempff can indeed achieve a sense of repose, while the gentle, almost fragmentary second movement again brings out his best.

The A major Sonata, D664, is one of the highlights of the set. Kempff is highly attuned to the light A major world of the first movement. He refuses to degenerate into 'music-box' effects when Schubert focuses on the higher registers, he provides a gentle Andante and brings the sonata to a graceful conclusion. The E flat Sonata, D568 again emerges as wholly Schubertian, with Kempff's delicate side once more to the fore. Unfortunately, a sense of fantasy is lacking in the Sonata in A minor, D537, and Kempff indulges in his occasional fault of clipping phrases in the second movement.

His advocacy of the earlier Sonatas is, however, never in doubt, and his belief in these sonatas shines through the entire enterprise. The recording serves him at all times well. There is no doubt that there are better performances of many of these sonatas available elsewhere (one immediately thinks of Uchida's transcendent penetration or Pollini's crystalline clarity), but if a one-pianist complete set is required at reasonable price (around forty pounds for seven discs), Kempff proves a generally reliable guide. In his introduction to the Sonatas, Kempff writes 'When Schubert sounds his magic harp, do we not feel as though we are floating on a sea of sound, freed from everything material?'.

Sometimes …


Colin Clarke



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