Wilhelm Kempff plays LISZT = Annees de peleringage: Italie; Venezia e Napoli: Goldoleriera; Deaux Legendes – Wilhelm Kempff, piano – PentaTone

Wilhelm Kempff plays LISZT = Annees de peleringage: Italie; Venezia e Napoli: Goldoleriera; Deaux Legendes – Wilhelm Kempff, piano – PentaTone DSD multichannel RQR Series (4.0) PTC 5186 220, 57:05 (5/12/15) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

German pianist Wilhem Kempff (1895-1991) maintained a reputation for textural clarity, nobility of expression, and serious purpose.  His work in the music of Franz Liszt eschewed the virtuosic and ostentatiously grandiose aspects of his music and remained understated and searching. Though his fingerwork could be uneven, his tempered legato and dewy tone often elicited uncommon praise. Alfred Brendel complimented the Kempff Liszt as “among the best we have.” Originally recorded for DGG at the Beethoven Saal in Hannover, Germany in September 1974, the quadraphonic tapes receive filtering and remastering for an improved four-channel sonic image.

The Italian Year of Pilgrimage (c. 1846-1858) comes as a response to Liszt’s reading of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship of Goethe, from which Liszt claimed to have derived “an undefined but real rapport” between “settings and places consecrated by history” and “deep emotions in my soul.”  A painting by Raphael, The Marriage of the Virgin, inspires Sposalizio, a rapturous wedding scene which culminates fff in a cosmic epithalamion.  Kempff molds the pentatonic melodic canvas into a march that transcends itself in passionate octaves and luminous arpgeggios. Another Renaissance titan has his musical counterpart in music, Michelangelo’s Il Penseroso from the Medici tomb in Florence, set in staid, chromatic lines of particularly richly dark, bass tones.  The noble dignity Kempff imparts resonates even beyond the last three chords. The genial, lighthearted Conzonetta del Salvatoe Rosa allows Kempff to realize an airy dance that repeats itself in martial figures. The sensibility here has a touch of the Baroque, ornamental in its ritornellos.

From the visual and plastic arts of Italy Liszt turns to the literary, poetic impulse of Petrarch, realizing in music three sonnets of love, desire, and resignation. Liszt employs a decidedly bel canto approach to his interpretations of these lyrics to courtly love. A series of rhetorical phrases permeates each of these celebrations of the poet’s Laura, presumably a woman whose status and virtue remained beyond eartly possession by the narrator. Kempff’s high tessitura, passing notes, flowing embellishments, and his arched cadenzas, each participates in the thrall and resignation of desire. The chiaroscuro of the texture corresponds to the “glade and grove” that marks the Sonetto 47, and the “sorrow and laughter” of Sonetto 104, the constant conjunction of opposites. Kempff’s canny pedaling contributes to the ravishing naturalness of effect, particularly in his pointed diminuendos and ritards. The last of the triptych, No. 123, indulges in the most consistent evocation of bliss, rife with soft sentiments, “the aether’s wildest gales” and “sweet plaint” of the deified Laura. Liszt had absorbed much of the Italian style from his wanderings, geographical and musical, and his truly urbane lyricism suits Kempff’s sensibility exquisitely.

Liszt’s Gondoliera, based on the gondolier song “La Biondina” by Giovanni Battista Peruchini, found its way into the composer’s Venezia e Napoli triptych in 1859 as part of the supplement to the Deuxieme Annee.  Relatively light fare in the Liszt catalogue, the piece approaches something of the Chopin Barcarolle while cleverly exploiting a bel canto treatment of a familiar street tune.  Kempff injects a sweet nostalgia into his rendition, rife with high watery tremolandos and glittery fioritura. The feel of the play of the waters at Villa d’Este lie merely on the near horizon.

Kempff concludes with the two St. Francis Legends from 1863. The first impressionistically describes St. Francis of Assisi and his so-called “bird sermon,” rife with chorale elements in bold declamation.  The repeated notes and arpeggiated tracery detail the ecstasy of flight, physical and spiritual.  St. Francis of Paola’s crossing the Straits of Messina owes its musical depiction to a drawing by Steinle acquired by Princess Wittgenstein. The steadfast, faithful gaze of St. Francis bears him up above the surging waves, whose scalar motion and tremolos never quench the eternal flame of devotion in his breast and borne within the cloak that supports his miraculous journey on water. The ecstatic bass and treble lines have their precursors in the Bach chorale-preludes Liszt – and Kempff – had fully imbibed in their respective pedagogy.

—Gary Lemco

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