Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Piano Concertos - The 78-rpm Recordings
Wilhelm Kempff (piano)
rec. 1925-1942
APR 6019 [75.34 + 77.38]

Wilhelm Kempff (1895-1991) recorded two complete cycles of Beethoven’s piano concertos in the LP era, both with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra: in 1953 (mono) under Paul van Kempen (review ~ review) and in 1961 (stereo) with Ferdinand Leitner; there is a third made in Japan (review). In the 78 era, between 1925 and 1942, he set down an almost complete cycle - sadly there’s no No. 2. Of these early inscriptions, No. 1 is acoustic and the remaining three are electric. Paul van Kempen, his later collaborator, is at the helm in nos. 3 and 4. Apparently the First Concerto is the first ever recording of the work; we don’t know who conducted it, but Kempff himself probably directed it from the keyboard. The Bagatelle in C major Op. 33 No. 5 holds the distinction of being the pianist’s very first recording, and the Six Ecossaises in E flat major WoO83 emanate from around the same time, circa 1920.

Despite the acoustic sound, Kempff delivers a glowing and incandescent performance of the First Concerto. I found I could bypass all the surface hiss and crackle and be drawn into this commanding traversal. There may be some over-generous rubato in the second subject theme of the first movement, but this is a small price to pay. The slow movement is seductive and expressive. The finale is dispatched with gusto and Úlan, however, there are some rather obtrusive rits at certain cadence points, which today sound rather odd.

In the opening movement of the Third Concerto, van Kempen sets a trenchant pace, giving a true feel of forward momentum. Emphasis is placed on the darker and more turbulent elements. The slow movement is broad and spacious. Despite the sonic limitations, Kempff’s pellucid tone emerges unscathed, and the listener never feels short-changed on poetry and eloquence. The finale has a sense of abandon, with the performance capturing the wit and affability of Beethoven’s writing. In comparing this with their 1953 collaboration, interpretative divergence is negligible. It is the sound quality of the later recording which will be the deciding factor.

The Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major Op. 58 is an intimate reading, and in the first movement Kempff’s eloquently sculpted lines give the performance a transcendental quality. It’s an introspective and probing account with much being made of the lyrical sections. The sound quality here doesn’t quite match that of the Third and Fifth Concertos, yet the pianist’s translucent tone shines through, especially in the slow movement. I totally agree with the sentiments expressed by Alfred Brendel, referring to Kempff: "When he is at his best he plays more beautifully than any of us", quoted at the head of the booklet notes. The third movement rondo is playful and alert.

There’s tremendous authority in the epic and noble reading of the Fifth Concerto. The majestic opening movement is impressive on all counts, with Kempff summoning muscularity when called for, as in the development’s octave passages. The Adagio has a dream-like and ethereal quality, serene and wondrous, with Peter Raabe providing gentle underlying support to the pianist’s expressive line. A no-nonsense approach informs the finale, with buoyant energy and boldly drawn lines.

The pianist uses his own cadenzas in the Third and Fourth Concertos. In the First he plays Beethoven’s second provided cadenza, adding his own embellishments. It was always Beethoven’s intention to allow pianists to improvise their own cadenzas, but he provided them for those not up to the job. I still prefer the composer’s efforts to those of Kempff. This is especially true in the cadenza the pianist provides for the Fourth Concerto which, to my ears seems a little over-florid and unstylish towards the end.

The three short pieces are attractive and welcome fillers.

This ‘twofer’ constitutes a welcome companion to the recently released set of late sonatas (APR6018 - review) which I reviewed several weeks ago. Mark Obert-Thorn’s vibrant transfers and audio restorations inject new life into these recordings. Harriet Smith has supplied useful liner-notes offering background and context, and these are interspersed with excellently reproduced black and white photographs of the performers. Pianophiles will not fail to respond to these persuasive accounts. This is, without doubt, a set to treasure.

Stephen Greenbank
Contents List

CD 1 [75.34]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major Op. 15 [34:42]
Berlin State Opera Orchestra
rec. September 1925 (Polydor 69815/8)
Bagatelle in C major Op. 33 No. 5 [2:28]
rec. 1920?
(Kempff's first recording) (Polydor 62400)
Six Ecossaises in E flat major WoO83 [2:03]
rec. 1920? (Polydor 62400)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor Op. 37 [36:19]
Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra/Paul van Kempen
rec. 11 June 1942 (Polydor 67946/50)

CD 2 [77.38]
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major Op. 58 [33:27]
German Opera House Orchestra/Paul van Kempen
rec. 19 March 1940 (Polydor 67674/8)
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major Emperor Op. 73 [38:09]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Peter Raabe
rec. 6 January 1936 (Polydor 67082/6)
Rondo a capriccio in G major 'Rage over a lost penny' Op. 129 [6:01]
rec. 24 September 1937 (Polydor 62802)

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