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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
CD 1
Piano Concerto no. 1 in C major op. 15 (1800) [36:57]
Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat major op. 19 (1798) [29:30]
CD 2
Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor op. 37 (1803-4) [35:12]
Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major op. 58 (1805-6) [33:02]
CD 3
Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat major op. 73 “Emperor” (1809) [38:30]
Rondo in C major op. 51 no. 1 (1795) [7:00]
Rondo in G major op. 51 no. 2 (1799) [8:35]
Wilhelm Kempff (piano)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Paul van Kempen
rec. Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, May 1953 (Concertos); Beethovensaal, Hannover, January 1953 (Rondos), Mono
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON ROSETTE COLLECTION 476 5299 [3 CDs: 66:34 + 68:21 + 54:42]

To have gained entry to the series these recordings were recipients of the Penguin Guide’s ultimate accolade, a Rosette, an arbitrary personal attribution by the critic reviewing the discs, indicating a special “magic” or distinction over and above the normal three star “excellent” grading. It is one of the facets of the guide that has called forth most comment over the years … mainly positive it is true but not always.
Wilhem Kempff has without doubt been regarded as one of the great pianists of the middle and latter part of the twentieth century. Although not escaping the prevalent trend to be pigeon-holed into particular repertoire … one thinks of Schubert, Schumann and Beethoven for example ….his particular strength of pellucid tone-colouring enhanced many works and much repertoire.
He recorded the Beethoven concertos twice complete, in the 1950s and early 1960s, as well as 78s of the last three concertos in the late 1940s. On all three occasions the recording company was the same, Deutsche Grammophon.
Having been acquainted for some years with the later (stereo) recordings on cassette, I was particularly curious to hear these earlier discs. The rather warm balance of 1962 - at least on tape - is replaced here by a more reverberant acoustic with the orchestra placed somewhat behind the piano image. From time to time the woodwind recede a little too far for my comfort. This happens for instance in the opening tutti of the 3rd concerto (from around 1.00 to 1:20), although the string basses come across strongly. Generally the piano image is decently caught, again with a strong bass element, although now and again the very top of the keyboard doesn’t sound absolutely clean. Remember this is after all 1953.
As to the performances … well as a broad-brush comment, I generally enjoyed them all whilst admiring the earlier concertos more than the later ones.
The second, the earliest composition in the cycle, comes off especially well. In the finale despite a fairly moderate tempo there is a delightful, catch-me-if-you-can wink- in-the eye feel, with which van Kempen and the orchestra fully engage. I also found the first concerto equally impressive, the “deep twilight” of the slow movement (Kempff’s words) especially well caught.
In the third concerto I made an extensive comparison with the later recording conducted by Ferdinand Leitner (1962), running the CD and tape simultaneously and dipping backward and forward between the two sources. In terms of the overall conception - balance, structure and pacing - there appeared to be little difference between the sessions. Just occasionally in tuttis van Kempen appeared a little more trenchant, digging into the rhythms and sculpting the profile more than Leitner. Otherwise timings were very similar.
Moving on; if I have to declare a favourite among the concertos it would probably be the fourth, and here I wasn’t so impressed. This was actually the first disc I sampled, and it was as I was listening that I recalled both Kempff’s love of crafting his own cadenzas, and his occasional propensity for introducing them at inappropriate moments. Whilst the principle of a pianist-inspired cadenza is not a bad thing, the insistence on using one in the finale of this concerto definitely is. Personally I find it adds nothing to the music, impeding the flow in the movement toward the coda.
Indeed whilst focusing upon the last two concertos I must report the want of a definite profile, (for lack of a better word), to the performance from both the soloist and the conductor. I really didn’t get the sense of the artists “digging into” the music. Rhythms seemed to be smoothed, articulation to be damped-down, a feature also, as it happens, in the later recordings with Leitner.
Comparing Kempff and van Kempen with the discs by Barenboim and Klemperer (EMI Great Recordings of the Century 0946 3 61525 2), which I happened to have readily to hand, was fascinating. Taking the finale of the fourth concerto again … the EMI performance is markedly slower but there seemed to be much more going on in the music, more detail emerging, frankly more interest. All this is done without distorting the overall balance or getting in the way of the magisterial structure of the music.
That said I must report Kempff does triumph in the slow movement of this work. Few can match that pellucid quality of tone. A beautiful Orpheus indeed, although one could hope for more “wild beasts” from the ranks of the BPO. Again the slight balance problems don’t help them in this respect. As a real contrast try the recording by Vladimir Ashkenazy and Sir Georg Solti on Decca at this point, a triumph despite the desperately unflattering instrument Ashkenazy is given.
Frankly as Kempff progressed through the concertos I began to miss those qualities in Beethoven of struggle, awkwardness, adventurousness and the sheer bumptiousness of the man. Whilst Kempff’s crystalline beauty tells much of the story - Beethoven was after all perfectly capable of writing limpidly beautiful music too - it doesn’t encompass that other knotty, unpredictable but ultimately necessary side of the composer’s character nearly as well.
It was only after coming to these conclusions that I read Edward Greenfield’s notes to the set, during which he remarks: “…(Kempff’s) first concentration is on refinement and clarity. He refuses steadfastly to bludgeon, so that it is less the struggle and stress of Beethoven’s message which comes over – at least initially – than the Triumph, and above all the joy.”
I take the point but I still feel those trenchant qualities can be conveyed without bludgeoning. Recommended still, as are the performances from 1962, but with the provisos outlined.
Ian Bailey

see also review by Jonathan Woolf






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