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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The complete Wartime piano sonata recordings
Wilhelm Kempff (piano)
rec. 1940-43, Berlin
APR 7403 [4 CDs: 299:06]

If you’ve encountered APR’s other recent Kempff releases – the late Beethoven sonata recordings made between 1925-36 and the Concerto recordings of 1925-42 – you’ll realise that the reissue programme has taken a coherent look at some of the more hard-to-source elements of the pianist’s discography.

This new 4-CD box of the sixteen piano sonata recordings he made between 1940 and 1943 for Grammophon includes a number that have never been reissued before. It also seems reasonable to conclude, as Michael Spring suggests in his portion of the notes, that this was an attempt to set down the complete set of 32 sonatas. There was considerable activity in the early years of the War – ten sonatas alone were recorded in 1940 - but thereafter things seem to have trailed off or been subject to inconsistencies; three in 1941, none in 1942 and three in 1943. So, the cycle was never completed, Kempff succeeding in recording only 24 on 78s, the 1924 late acoustic of Op.101 and early electrics of 1928 were never re-made and it wasn’t until his mono and stereo LP cycles that Kempff could set down authoritatively, and in concentrated form, his full musical thoughts.

Though in general these earlier Kempff performances reveal small expressive exaggerations of metrics and phrasing that were to become much less audible in those later sets, these sonata performances do also conform to his expected lighter tonal palette, which was at a complete remove from the approaches of, say, Lamond, Schnabel and Backhaus in their recordings. Technically he is excellent and only a few occasions seem to have inconvenienced him; though the relatively high take numbers for some 1940 recordings seem to suggest a striving for as much perfection as could be achieved. Op.2 No.2’s opening movement briefly derails him for a moment but otherwise he plays with brio and tonal variety, and expressive balance in the slow movement. Op.14 No.1 is full of fluent grace and clarity of articulation. There are witty turns of phrase in his playing of the Andante of Op.14 No.2 and a compelling lyricism and poetry in the slow movement of Op.22.

He invariably brought a lissome quotient to Op.7 and one can appreciate his deft touch and dynamics in this March 1940 performance – this was the month in which he set down nine sonatas, quite a feat then or now. The finale of Op.10 No.2 is airily propulsive and he powerfully draws on bass, tenor and soprano voicings in the Largo e mesto of Op.10 No.3: there’s something almost desolate about his playing here. There’s sufficient drama without a draconian element in the opening of the Pathétique. His refined balance ensures that his sonority is never too vertical in the opening of the Funeral March sonata and his playing in the Waldstein, never headstrong, is nevertheless strongly sculpted. Op.31 No.3 is graced by a rounded pingy treble, whatever may be the supposed limitations of the medium, and whilst the Appassionata is less linear here than it was to become and still subject to some moments of romanticised displacement, it is still a commanding traversal, despite untidiness at the start of the finale.

Bryce Morrison sets the scene in his notes to the performances. Fortunately, the recordings were well recorded and the ratio of retained surface noise allows Kempff’s tone to emerge fully rounded; there’s been no unwelcome dampening from Mark Obert-Thorn just because some of the shellacs carry a complement of noise - the wartime pressings would inevitably have been compromised.

This substantial box continues APR’s excellent restoration work on behalf of Kempff’s substantial and important early legacy.

Jonathan Woolf

Track listing
CD 1 [70:52]
No. 2 in A major op. 2 no. 2 (1794-5)
No. 9 in E major op. 14 no. 1 (1798)
No. 10 in G major op. 14 no. 2 (1799)
No. 11 in B flat major op. 22 (1800)
CD2 [75:20]
No. 4 in E flat major op. 7 (1796-7)
No. 5 in C minor op. 10 no. 1 (1795-7)
No. 6 in F major op. 10 no. 2 (1796-7)
No. 7 in D major op. 10 no. 3 (1797-8)
CD 3 [74:32]
No. 8 in C minor op. 13 "Pathétique" (1797-8)
No. 12 in A flat major op. 26 "Funeral March" (1800-01)
No. 14 in C sharp minor op. 27 no. 2 "Moonlight" (1801)
No. 21 in C major op. 53 "Waldstein" (1803-04)
CD4 [78:22]
No. 13 in E flat major op. 27 no. 1 (1800-01)
No. 15 in D major op. 28 "Pastorale" (1801)
No. 18 in E flat major op. 31 no. 3 (1802)
No. 23 in F minor op. 57 "Appassionata" (1804-05)



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