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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto no. 1 in C major op. 15 (1800) [34:42]
Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor op. 37 (1803-4) [36:10]
Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major op. 58 (1805-6) [33:20]
Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat op. 73Emperor (1809) [38:09]
Bagatelle in C major, Op.33 No.5 [2:28]
Six Ecossaises in E flat major WoO83 [2:03]
Rondo a capriccio in G major, Op.129 [6:01]
Wilhelm Kempff (piano)
Berlin State Opera Orchestra (No.1, rec. 1925)
Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra/Paul van Kempen (No.3, rec. 1942)
German Opera House Orchestra/ Paul van Kempen (No.4, rec. 1940)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Peter Raabe (No.5, rec.1936)
APR 6019 [75:34 + 77:38]

This release is companion to APR’s restoration of the last eight Beethoven piano sonatas in a series of pre-war recordings starting from a late acoustic in 1925 (review). Neither they, nor these concerto recordings, were conceived as a cycle. They merely developed over time as circumstances allowed or as the artistic policy of Polydor dictated. Given the existence of Kempff’s post-war cycles – the 1953 mono with van Kempen, a favourite accompanist, and Ferdinand Leitner’s 1961 stereo - these 78rpm sets may seem superfluous to requirements to all but dedicated followers of the pianist, especially as No.2 was not recorded on shellac. I think objectively that may be true but it’s not necessarily true artistically.

No conductor is noted on the labels of the Berlin State Opera Orchestra recording of Concerto No.1 and indeed there’s some debate as to whether it was Kempff himself. This acoustic set was recorded in September 1925, by which time other companies had begun the switch to microphone recording. Bass reinforcements are strongly audible to beef up that weak point in the sonic spectrum and whilst surface noise is present the sound quality is good. Kempff plays nimbly in the outer movements – there’s an especially finely dispatched first movement cadenza - and with warm expression in the slow movement. Here his expansiveness may come as a surprise – he broadens very noticeably – though here the bass instruments prove somewhat obtrusive, as they so often could in slow movements.

The Third Concerto, with van Kempen, followed in June 1942. High level hiss can’t occlude the degree of detail in this wartime Polydor. Kempff’s sound-world is, as ever, weighted toward the lighter end of the painterly palette, with a deliberately suppressed left hand but a compelling approach. This recording offers some evidence – recordings are often mere snapshots in time, of course – of a significant musico-intellectual readjustment to the Largo. He takes 10:45 here, 9:48 in 1953 and finally 8:52 in 1961. Normally I find stopwatch calculations curiously pedantic but here the entire nature of the expressive argument changes over a period of 20 years. It requires all van Kempen and Kempff’s experience not to allow this performance to slip apart. The finale is taken steadily but with incremental vibrancy and excitement. The Dresden Philharmonic plays well – and there’s an excellent clarinet principal.

Two years earlier the two musicians had collaborated on the G major Concerto, this time with the German Opera House Orchestra, Berlin. Once again the sonic weight in chording falls on the treble but Kempff draws out some delicious colour in the first movement cadenza. The slow movement is drawn on a truly human not Olympian scale - the range of dynamics never approaches the more melodramatic, not to say theatrically self-serving accounts one can come across. And there’s real clarity and rhythmic vitality in the finale. The Emperor had been recorded earlier in 1936, with Peter Raabe directing the Berlin Philharmonic: why not Furtwängler, one wonders. This is of a piece with the rest of the not-quite-cycle on shellac – commanding but not overbearing, powerful but balanced, beautifully rounded tonally but deliberately weighted against darker tonal qualities. The Adagio is especially beautiful and Kempff invariably played the Rondo finale with a spring in his step. Whatever his deficiencies as a man, Raabe was a good conductor.

There are small bonuses along the way. These are solo pieces including Kempff’s first ever recording, made in c.1920, the Bagatelle in C major. The Rondo a capriccio is here as well, recorded later in 1937 over two sides of a Polydor 78.

Harriet Smith contributes a fine booklet note and Mark Obert-Thorn has respected the original discs whilst drawing from them as optimum a sound quality as he can. This is an excellent twofer, priced as-for-one, and as such it provides valuable listening for the Kempff admirer as well as for those fascinated by Beethoven concerto performance on disc – I just haven’t had time to mention the very different tonal qualities of the orchestras concerned and that’s worth a study in itself.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank



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