Wilhelm Kempff = MOZART: Fantasia in D Minor; RAMEAU: Les trios mains; COUPERIN: Le carillon de Cythere; BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 15 “Pastoral”; SCHUBERT: Piano Sonata “Fantasie-Sonata” – Wilhelm Kempff, piano – MeloClassic

Wilhelm Kempff = MOZART: Fantasia in D Minor, K. 397; RAMEAU: Les trios mains; COUPERIN: Le carillon de Cythere; BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 15 in D Major, Op. 28 “Pastoral”; SCHUBERT: Piano Sonata in G Major, D. 894 “Fantasie-Sonata” – Wilhelm Kempff, piano – MeloClassic MC 1001, 70:54 [www.meloclassic.com] ****:

Pianist Wilhelm Kempff (1895-1991) managed to fuse warmth and objectivity into his playing, having been raised in an environment – Jueterbog – of Lutheran pietism, buttressed by studies in the organ and piano lesson with Heinrich Barth. Two of Kempff’s major influences came from Eugen d’Albert and Ferruccio Busoni, each of whom made Bach transcriptions for the solo piano.

MeloClassic joins together two distinct French appearances by Kempff: the 12 July 1955 recital embraces Mozart, Rameau, Couperin, and Beethoven. The Schubert sonata made up a part of the recital of 11 February 1960 from Studio 107 of the French National Radio-Television.  A lithely light hand marks the dour progression of Mozart’s unfinished 1791 D Minor Fantasia, a mercurial piece with seven tempo shifts – including three cadenzas – that eventually achieve a flourish in D Major. Rameau exploits antiphonal dynamics and suave leger-de-main, gently polished and suavely subtle in transitions. The improvisational Le carillon de Cythere of Couperin exploits any number of touches and impish antiphons, again performed with gentle accuracy and a thorough command of the colors the piano can elicit if a performer wishes to imitate music-box dynamics and tablature, but realized more slowly than the performance that Igor Kipnis inscribed for posterity for Epic Records.

Beethoven, naturally, virtually defined much of the Kempff mystique, as that composer meant equally much to Backhaus, Ney, Gieseking, and Erdmann. Architecture means a great deal to Kempff, so his lyrical reading of the opening Allegro of Op. 28 moves gracefully, fully aware of dynamic balances. The spirit of the performance eschews anything Herculean. Both subjective and cleanly articulate, the music possesses a naturally evolved flow, the disparate aspects of sonata-form melded into a mysterious, even glowing, meaningful whole. Perhaps the most difficult movement to realize without dragging, in the Andante Kempff retains the “walking tempo” along with its often quiet sense of contemplation. The last pages, however, reveal the primal force Kempff could exert if he so chose. Once more, the Mediterranean, light touch informs even the gruff passages of the Scherzo, tripping immediately into the cantering tempo of the Rondo finale.  Suddenly, a power surge from Kempff erupts, his trill and his bass line potent even in the course of Beethoven’s syncopes.

Kempff himself described Schubert’s music as “an eternal wellspring that flows entirely naturally.” Typically in his Schubert, to cite Alfred Brendel, Kempff “refused to interfere unduly with the music.” A marvelous transparency resides in Kempff’s rendition of the liquid 1826 G Major Sonata, the minus side of which occasionally reveals a finger slip. The 12/8 tempo of the Molto moderato e cantabile asks for a hesitant, limping character, but this same figure explodes with vehemence in its development. The tragic character of the music reaches for exquisite moments of delicacy in Kempff’s realization. The lovely lied of the Andante likewise a sudden storm, and Kempff’s reading does not cater to meekness. The B Minor/B Major Menuetto occupies a dance world totally beholden to the Vienna environs, a laendler of martial ingenuousness; and Kempff’s performance would have made Schumann wish to have been its creator. Episodic and rife with variants, the Allegretto dances but often yields to dark thoughts. Kempff’s touch becomes a mite more percussive here, brittle yet wistful in its haunted musings.

—Gary Lemco

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