Rudolf Kempe = HAYDN: Symphony No. 55 in E-flat Major; BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major; MOZART: Symphony No. 39 – Nikita Magaloff, p./ Berlin Philharmonic Orch./ Rudolf Kempe – Testament

Rudolf Kempe = HAYDN: Symphony No. 55 in E-flat Major; BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58; MOZART: Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major, K. 543 – Nikita Magaloff, piano/ Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/ Rudolf Kempe – Testament SBT 1492, 80:32 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

I had the good fortune to attend a Rudolf Kempe (1910-1976) concert at Carnegie Hall, one of the “visiting orchestra series” of concerts that featured the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and solo Heather Harper in the Richard Strauss Four Last Songs.  Kempe’s authority in orchestral music had a fine complement in his simplicity of means, a direct and affable mien with his players that accomplished exactly what he required for his repertory. Commentator James Reel places Kempe in historical perspective:

One of the great unsung conductors of the middle twentieth century, Rudolf Kempe enjoyed a strong reputation in England but never quite achieved the international acclaim that he might have had with more aggressive management, promotion, and recording. Not well enough known to be a celebrity but too widely respected to count as a cult figure, Kempe is perhaps best remembered as a connoisseur’s conductor, one valued for his strong creative temperament rather than for any personal mystique.

I might dispute the remark concerning “personal mystique,” since the concert 16 August 1962 from the Mozarteum, Salzburg confirms Kempe’s projection and communication between him, his players, and his audience.  Kempe opens with a relative rarity in his recorded legacy, Haydn’s 1774 Symphony No. 55 in E-flat Major “The Schoolmaster,” the sobriquet attributed to the dotted rhythm of the B-flat Major Adagio, purportedly “the wagging finger of a beloved schoolteacher.” Kempe injects a healthy energy into the ¾ first movement Allegro di molto, with its alert response between divided strings and woodwinds. Even a pared-down BPO impresses us with its weighty heft. The eponymous rhythm of the second movement, asking for ma semplicemente, offers a theme and seven variations that alternate legato and staccato textures. The Menuetto has a virile gait, moving confidently to the intimate Trio, featuring a solo cello and two violins, one of whom is leader Michel Schwalbe. The eccentric Finale: Presto combines the rondo form and a series of variants, several of which take their style from a divertimento sensibility. Clean, plastic fun emerges from the bustle, expertly balanced.

The choice of Russian pianist Nikita Magaloff (1912-1992) as soloist for the dreamy Beethoven G Major Concerto offers an intriguing collaboration of musical styles, especially as Magaloff, released from a long life of teaching in Geneva, seems to have gained power and authority in his later years at the keyboard. Noted for exploration of French Romantic and Russian repertory, Magaloff in his Beethoven experience proves a rare treat. Fluid and poetically absorbing, the Magaloff first movement sings luxuriously, often architecturally moving the accelerated or retarded phrase to what Rachmaninov called “the point.” His trill is potent, as are his pearly play and scintillating runs. The first movement cadenza proffers more colors than a Russian Easter! The significant oboe part (Kempe’s own instrument) emerges prominently in its passing dialogues with the keyboard and within the warm open-work Kempe provides. A finely-honed, dramatic Andante con moto (in gorgeous piano tone) leads to the thrillingly spirited Rondo: Vivace, in which the principals move with silken grace and marvelously hued impetus. Magaloff’s diminuendos prove as affecting as his colossal crescendos, and every periodic group of arpeggios has its own affect. No wonder the Berlin audience erupts with delight.

The music of Mozart figured sporadically in Kempe’s recorded legacy. Few performances of Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 by the Berlin Philharmonic can equal the tragic stature of that by Wilhelm Furtwaengler, but Kempe achieves a noble, chromatic Adagio prior to the unleashed forces of the ensuing, processional Allegro. The grand pomp contains brilliantly executed rocket figures, and a streamlined dialogue between strings, winds, and tympani. The exquisite Andante movement complements Sarastro’s vision of an ideal world in The Magic Flute. The passion in this music retains a magisterial serenity, while the textures, often spare, assume a chamber music affect. The potent Menuetto asserts its own grandeur, and its Trio, introduced by the clarinets, grants us a laendler that anticipates Schubert. The monothematic Finale: Presto relentlessly drives in perpetual motion, and even its counter-theme merely proffers a variant of the opening theme. Witty, deft instrumentation and spirited gusto prevail, and Kempe keeps the magic cauldron bubbling, especially in the bassoon and his cohorts. Kempe may well be said to be working at his artistic peak in 1962, and the musical cornucopia he commands enriches us all.

—Gary Lemco

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