Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonatas Nos 24 & 26-32
Wilhelm Kempff (piano)
rec. 1925–1936
APR 6018 [76:02 + 71:26]

With two complete cycles of the piano sonatas, Beethoven lies at the heart of Wilhelm Kempff’s repertoire. He also made a name for himself in Bach, Mozart, Schubert and Schumann, steering clear of French music and the Russian Romantics. Unlike many artists, he warmed to the studio environment and his relaxed, spontaneous approach is tangible in the recordings he set down for posterity. His first complete cycle, in mono, was recorded in the early 1950s (review), with a stereo re-make following in the 1960s (review). Both sets I am very fond of, with a slight preference for the earlier traversal which sounds marginally more fresh and instinctive. I hadn’t realized, until reading Bryce Morrison’s accompanying annotations, that in the 78 era, Kempff had recorded twenty-four of the thirty-two sonatas for Polydor (Grammophon). Some of these were cut acoustically, then, after 1925, electrically. Some of the more popular sonatas were made using both technologies. The selection of the composer’s late sonatas we have here are all electrical, with the exception of Op. 101, an acoustic recording from 1925 and never re-made. Kempff’s Op. 81a, Op. 90 and Op. 101 were actually the first commercial recordings of these works, pre-dating those by Schnabel.

‘Les Adieux’, Op. 81a is particularly successful. Kempff captures the mood of farewell in the first movement, and there is a deep sense of loss or absence in the second. In Das Wiedersehen there is unalloyed exuberance and celebration in the pianist’s exhilarating playing. In the second movement of the Op. 90, the song-like lyricism is kept flowing, and Kempff’s rendition has a strong Schubertian flavor. Allowances have to be made for the acoustically recorded Op. 101, the audio quality of which doesn’t match the other items. Nevertheless, this is a valuable addition to Kempff’s discography as, together with Op. 90, it has never been reissued since the original 78s.

The ‘Hammerklavier’ is impressive on all counts. It is not cast in the barnstorming approach favoured by Schnabel. Kempff is more relaxed and less frenetic. He savours the moment and highlights the textures more. His tempi are comparable to the two subsequent studio recordings, with the exception of the slow movement which is a good two minutes longer in this earlier traversal. There’s a searching intimacy and an almost reverential approach to Kempff’s Adagio. I love the way he controls the transition into the final movement, allowing the music to unfold naturally. Nothing is ever forced.

Poetry, profundity and intimacy inform the last three sonatas. There’s an intuitive grasp of structure and architecture so that the music evolves instinctively and purposefully. I am amazed how these early recordings capture his beautiful tone and subtle dynamic gradations. Most of all, however, there’s the sheer communicative power of his playing, by turns both profound and spiritual. Owing to the limitations of the 78 recording process, the variation movement of Op. 109 is shorn of its repeats. This is one drawback, and certainly affects the balance of the movement. In Op. 111, the Arietta is sublime in Kempff’s hands with the cumulative effects of each subsequent variation building the drama and tension. There is an otherworldly quality and a sense of inevitability. Fortunately the repeats are observed here.

Mark Obert-Thorn’s audio restorations are outstanding, revealing the pianist’s rich tone and interpretative genius in all its glory. This release is a welcome complement to Kempff’s two subsequent complete sonata cycles.

Stephen Greenbank
CD 1 [76.02]
Sonata No. 24 in F sharp major Op. 78 [6:37]
rec. 1932 (Polydor 90193)
Sonata No. 26 in E flat major ‘Les adieux’ Op. 81a [14:15]
rec. 1928 (Polydor 66687/8)
Sonata No. 27 in E minor Op. 90 [13:37]
rec. 1928 (Polydor 62639 and 66712)
Sonata No. 29 in B flat major ‘Hammerklavier’ Op. 106 [41:32]
rec. 7 and 25 January 1936 (Polydor 67077/81)
CD 2 [71.26]
Sonata No. 28 in A major Op. 101 [16:00]
acoustic recording, 1925 (Polydor 66178/9)
Sonata No. 30 in E major Op. 109 [14:18]
rec. 29 July 1936 (Polydor 67091/2)
Sonata No. 31 in A flat major Op. 110 [18:01]
rec. 29 July 1936 (Polydor 67088/90)
Sonata No. 32 in C minor Op. 111 [23:07]
rec. 31 July 1936 (Polydor 67093/5)


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