BEETHOVEN Complete Piano Sonatas – Kempff
To celebrate the centenary last November of the birth of Wilhelm Kempff, DG offer in the Dokumente series this fascinating collection of mono recordings, most of them long unavailable and some from the age of 78rpm.
With Kempff, the most inspirational of Beethoven pianists, pride of place must go to the earlier of his two sonata cycles, the one in mono. The format itself is attractive, with the eight CDs plus the bonus disc packaged in a compact box (the disc sleeves are paper), the same style that DG have chosen to adopt for Fischer-Dieskau’s Lieder collections.
Those who have cherished the 1965 DG stereo cycle (3/91) for its magical spontaneity, will find Kempff’s qualities even more intensely conveyed in this mono set, recorded between 1951 and 1956. Amazingly the sound has more body and warmth than the stereo, with Kempff’s unmatched transparency and clarity of articulation even more vividly caught, both in sparkling Allegros and in deeply dedicated slow movements. If in places he is even more personal, some might say wilful, regularly surprising you with a new revelation, the magnetism is even more intense, as in the great Adagio of the Hammerklavier or the final variations of Op. 111, at once more rapt and more impulsive, flowing more freely.
The bonus disc, entitled “An All-Round Musician”, celebrates Kempff’s achievement in words and music, on the organ in Bach, on the piano in Brahms and Chopin as well as in a Bachian improvisation, all made exceptionally transparent and lyrical. Fascinatingly, his pre-war recordings of the Beethoven sonatas on 78s are represented too. According to
The first track has the bells of the World Peace Church in Hiroshima and following this, Bach played on the organ; one can also hear Kempff’s address on the dedication of the organ in that church, the first of the five speech bands. Taken from various sources, set in very different acoustics, his light, clear, precise voice rather mirrors his piano style, and the booklet gives a summary in English of what he says. So the fifth speech-band, “On my interpretation of Beethoven”, tackles head-on the accusation that his view of the master is too personal, more Kempff than Beethoven. The final tracks have him accompanying Fischer-Dieskau in four of his (Kempff’s) own songs, with the first, Liederseelen, bringing a delicious, brilliant piano accompaniment, and the last, In einer Sturmnacht, the darkest and most ambitious. It is a reminder that Kempff, following such masters as Furtwangler and Schnabel, was a creative musician, not just in his individual imagination as a pianist, but as a composer too.
The single discs are more variable. The transfers from 78s of the 1941-2 recordings of Beethoven’s Third Concerto and Mozart’s D minor and the D major Rondo are interpretatively fascinating but offer very poor, often crumbly orchestral sound with heavy surface hiss. In the Beethoven the first movement is less alert than in his later recordings, but the slow movement, like that of the Pathetique, is broader and more espressivo. The Mozart is not just transparent but full of the sparkling qualities that mark Kempff’s later concerto recordings of this composer, and who will worry that his own cadenza has very romantic progressions?
I cherish the Brahms more for the Handel Variations, again transparent, with the crispest possible ornamentation, purposefully conveying pure joy, than for the concerto. There Kempff, rapt and spontaneous-sounding as ever, regularly offering fine, individual detail, somehow seems less concentrated over the whole span. He is not helped by the harsh, even clangy, 1957 recording. In the Schumann disc, dating from the same period, Kempff is again a little uneven, far happier in the dozen jewelled sections that make up the Etudes symphoniques than in the broad span of the C major Fantasie.
Whatever reservations one may make, the magnetically individual personality of Kempff rides triumphant. I remember his seventy-fifth birthday celebration in the intimacy of the Kavaliershaus in Munich, when after the orotund speeches of tribute from the great and the good of West Germany (including major political figures), he simply stood up, made a joke, and suggested he should not talk but play, which he did, magically. It may have been a very un-German gesture on a grand occasion, yet it was one that thrilled and charmed the whole gathering, typical of Kempff as man and artist.'