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Wilhelm Kempff (piano)
Recitals in France

rec. 1959-1967
MELOCLASSIC MC1042 [79:45 + 77:57]

There is no disputing the fact that Wilhelm Kempff (1895-1991) is widely regarded as one of the twentieth century’s greatest pianists. An exponent of the Germanic tradition, he had a repertoire that rested on such composers as Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms, with frequent forays into the music of Mozart, Schumann and Liszt. For me, the discographical highlights include two distinguished Beethoven piano sonata cycles, and a visionary traversal of those by Schubert. Kempff was a pianist who influenced a whole generation of those who came after him. What I get from his recordings is playing informed by a formidable musical intellect, rhythmic inventiveness, lyrical intensity and shaping – and, above all, freshness and spontaneity: music is recreated on the wing. By far the majority of encounters I have had with his pianism is via the studio recordings. I have heard very little of his live performances, so was particularly thrilled when this release came my way for review.

These three live radio broadcasts were taped in France between 1959 and 1967 by Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française (RTF), later to become ORTF. The earliest, from 10 July 1959, centres on Beethoven and Brahms, with the pianist’s own arrangement of Handel’s G major Chaconne to kick off the proceedings. There is also Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise by Chopin, a composer whom I do not usually associate with Kempff. The Handel is not a success. Marred by finger slips and wrong notes, it sounds pretty untidy and leaves one with the impression that Kempff was just warming up. Once he had played himself in, Beethoven’s Op. 31 No. 3 is a different matter. The sound quality may not be as good as the studio recordings, but the pianist is gaining inspiration from audience presence and the live event. The final Presto has more than enough vim and vigour. This will appeal to those looking to music that was not at the forefront of Kempff’s repertoire. When it comes to Brahms, Kempff responds positively to the autumnal qualities of the six Klavierstücke, Op. 118. The second, probably the most popular, takes on the form of a song without words, intimate and ardent in its sensitive phrasing.

Six days later, and we are whisked off to Prades in the south of France for a recital featuring Brahms and Schumann. The venue, the Église Saint Pierre, is less dry and more reverberant than the Théâtre du Casino, Divonne-les-Bains, where the previous recital was hosted. Kempff’s approach to Brahms Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel is monumental and big-boned. The theme, taken from Handel’s Keyboard Suite in B flat, undergoes 25 variations topped off with a fugue. The variations range from exuberance and virtuosity to melting lyricism, and the fugue is a veritable tour-de-force. Kempff’s poetic gifts are to the fore in a compelling reading of Schumann’s Fantasie in C Major. The daring leaps across the keyboard in the coda of the middle movement, a nightmare for most pianists, are dispatched without any misfires. The finale is dreamlike and radiant.

The third recital takes place in the Théatre Municipal, Besançon on 13 September 1967. In Beethoven’s Op. 101, Kempff places emphasis on intimacy and introspection, yet never loses sight of its freedom and fantasy. The Adagio is probing and intense and the fugal elements in the finale are well defined. Schumann’s Carnaval has great technical strength, and the mood of each piece is successfully captured. There is much excitement and edge-of-seat stuff. It is a popular work, much recorded, but this traversal can hold its head high in such distinguished company as Michelangeli, Rubinstein and Uchida.

Elegantly presented in well-constructed gatefold format, these three live recitals, of historical importance, are a valuable addition to the Kempff discography, which devotees of the pianist will welcome. The sound quality is perfectly agreeable, though variable, in Lynn Ludwig’s skillful restorations. Michael Waiblinger’s liner is an appreciated accompaniment. For inspirational pianism of the highest order, you need look no further.

Stephen Greenbank
Previous review: Jonathan Woolf
Georg Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Chaconne in G Major, HWV 435 arr. Kempff [6:55]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No 18 in E-flat Major, Op. 31/3 [21:30]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Six Klavierstücke, Op. 118 [20:14]
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise, Op. 22 [12:28]
rec. 10 July 1959, Divonne-les-Bains, Théâtre du Casino, RTF Live Recording
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No 28 in A Major, Op. 101[18:36]
rec. 13 September 1967, Besançon, Théatre Municipal, ORTF Live Recording
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24 [23:34]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Fantasie in C Major, Op. 17 [29:33]
rec. 16 July 1959, Prades, Église Saint Pierre, RTF Live Recording
Carnaval, Op 9 [24:49]
rec. 13 September 1967, Besançon, Théatre Municipal, ORTF Live Recording

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