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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 16 in G, Opus 31 No 1 (1802) [22:33]
Piano Sonata No. 17 in D minor, Opus 31 No 2 (1802) [20:56]
Piano Sonata No. 18 in E flat, Opus 31 No 3 (1802) [20:50]
Piano Sonata No. 19 in G minor, Opus 49 No 1 (1797?) [8:05]
Piano Sonata No. 20 in G, Opus 49 No 2 (1797?) [8:38]
Piano Sonata No. 21 in C (Waldstein), Opus 53 (1804) [22:04]
Piano Sonata No. 22 in F, Opus 54 (1804) [12:18]
Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor (Appassionata), Opus 57 (1805) [21:52]
Piano Sonata No. 24 in F sharp, Opus 78 (1809) [7:58]
Wilhelm Kempff (piano)
rec. September and December 1951, Beethovensaal, Hannover
PRISTINE AUDIO PAKM084 [2 CDs: 145:12]

I am sure that many people would agree that Wilhelm Kempff, whose recording career spans about sixty years, was one of the very greatest of Beethoven interpreters. His qualities of simplicity, integrity, emotional sincerity, clarity, directness and avoidance of fuss, his ability to reach the transcendental, his natural, honest music-making – these attributes have endeared him to listeners who value these qualities above all.

Perhaps the most moving comment came from Sibelius. Kempff had played the slow movement of the Hammerklavier, to which Sibelius responded “You do not play that as a pianist but rather as a human being.” For many years the pianist I most admired was Brendel, whereas now I find it difficult to avoid comparing everyone to (the incomparable) Richter. Being trapped in my Brendel-addiction, I eventually moved on and began to fully appreciate many other pianists for their special, even unique, qualities. I lapse into this personal reminiscence partly because Brendel himself wrote admiringly of Kempff (whom I also include in my personal favourites). He “played on impulse … it depended on whether the right breeze, as with an Aeolian harp, was blowing. You then would take something home that you never heard elsewhere.” In just one of Brendel's books, The Veil of Order (a quotation from Novalis), there are countless mentions of Kempff, always admiring. Excuse the further diversion, but I have to give the complete, beautifully poetic extract from Novalis - “Chaos, in a work of art, should shimmer through through the veil of order.” Brendel adds: “I am very much for chaos, that is to say feeling. But it's only the veil of order that makes the work of art possible.”

The Opus 31set begins with an Allegro vivace. At the outset Kempff marks the contrast between the straightforward semiquaver patterns and the lumpy, syncopated answering bars without any exaggeration. In the second movement (with the unusual tempo direction Adagio grazioso) Kempff plays a wonderful “quasi-pizzicato”, beneath a gorgeously lyrical melodic line. As ever, in the many decorative runs, his technique is subservient to the music, so that one is unaware of any difficulties. I reviewed Konstantin Lifschitz's complete Beethoven sonatas a few months ago, compared with which Kempff is a breath of fresh air - pure musicianship free from mannerisms, distortions or egotism. The Presto coda to the finale of Opus 31 No 1 is perfectly brilliant and witty.

In the first movement of Opus 31 No 2 Kempff's relative understatement creates a performance of no less power than those which emphasise Sturm und Drang. The slow movement offers another example of his beautiful simplicity, which I find moving and breathtaking. What a model for the younger generation - but such simplicity is difficult to convey if it is not instinctive. The finale, an obsessive moto perpetuo, is again a paragon of naturalness. I am less than a quarter of the way through these two CDs and I am already exhausting my stock of superlatives.

Among my favourite recordings of Opus 31 No 3 are those by Clara Haskil and Brendel, but Kempff is equally satisfying. The innocent joy he finds in the opening movement is delightful. His simplicity proves more effective than the many performances in which more of a meal is made of the questioning first bars. Dramatic emphasis, electricity and virtuosity offer short-term pleasures, but increasingly I realise that considered, sometimes slightly understated interpretations are more likely to bring long-term satisfaction, of the kind one returns to with deeper pleasure. This is not to say that Kempff is lacking in the three qualities mentioned above, where necessary, as one finds in his Waldstein and Appassionata (a title bestowed by the publisher). He achieves grandeur and heroism without any sense of striving. Neither is he low on humour or warmth. Some listeners have found Kempff a little cool at times, but honestly I cannot agree.

Opus 49 No 1 is in G minor, not a common key in Beethoven's music. This 2-movement work and its companion piece are known as Leichte Sonaten, because they are relatively undemanding technically. As they date from the late 1790's, their opus number is an anomaly. From the way Kempff plays the G minor Sonata, one would not readily regard this as inferior Beethoven. Equally Opus 49 No 2 is treated with the same musicianship and wisdom.

Disc Two has great performances of Opus 53 and Opus 57 – the latter among the finest I have ever heard, with the elements of drama and fire superbly realised. Here this sonata leaves the impression of a genuine, tremendous masterpiece. The Waldstein is equally impressive, the opening movement full of energy without force or underlining. Kempff's wisdom in beginning the finale at a gentle tempo (as marked – Allegretto moderato) is revealed as the movement unfolds. Also on Disc Two are the Sonatas Opus 54 and Opus 78, the first initially graceful but then sharply characterised at the “sempre forte e staccato” triplets. In the second movement we may admire Kempff's delicacy. Opus 78, a gem of a work, is beautifully played, the brief second movement surprisingly electric – but then Kempff is quite often unpredictable. Beethoven's expressive range is wider than any other composer's but Kempff has the emotional and intellectual understanding to communicate every aspect.

For those to whom this is an important factor, I must mention that Kempff was far from a stickler with repeats. The recorded sound is remarkably good, but we have come to expect such marvels from Pristine. The paper insert comprises two admiring reviews from the Gramophone of the late 1950's, to which I add my own rave review.

Philip Borg-Wheeler



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