The early Beethoven legacy from Wilhelm Kempff – sonatas and concertos – with excellent restoration in these inscriptions.

BEETHOVEN: Piano Concertos = Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15; Bagatelle in C Major, Op. 33, No. 5; Six Ecossaises in E-flat Major, WoO83; Concerto No. 3 in c minor, Op. 37; Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58; Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major “Emperor,” Op. 73; Rondo a capriccio in G Major “Rage over a lost penny,” Op. 129 – Berlin State Opera Orch./ Dresden Philharmonic Orch./ German Opera House Orch./ Paul van Kempen (Nos. 3 & 4)/ Berlin Philharmonic Orch./ Peter Raabe (No. 5)/ Wilhelm Kempff, p. – APR 6019 (2 CDs) 75:34, 77:38 (2/26/16) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****: 

BEETHOVEN: The Late Sonatas = No. 24 in F-sharp Major, Op. 78; No. 26 in E-flat Major “Les adieux,” Op. 81a; No. 27 in e minor, Op. 90; No. 28 in A Major, Op. 101; No. 29 in B-flat Major “Hammerklavier,” Op. 106; No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109; No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op. 110; No. 32 in c minor, Op. 111/ Wilhelm Kempff, p. – APR 6018 (2 Discs) 76:02, 71:26 (1/29/16) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

These newly-edited Kempff sets, inscribed 1920-1942 and restored by Mark Obert-Thorn, complement the 14-CD DGG Wilhelm Kempff: The Concerto Recordings (479 1133). For the most part, the data – for the DGG assembled by Alan Newcombe – coincide, except for the date ascribed to the G Major Concerto with Kempen and the German Opera House Orchestra, which lists the performance from 1941, while Obert-Thorn dates the performance from 19 March 1940. Kempff (1895-1981) maintained a reputation in Romantic repertory for his nobility of conception and the transparency of his approach, despite an occasionally faulty technical mechanism. When his accuracy matched his the vision he possessed of the music, results could be moving and even transcendent.

The rambunctious Rage over a lost penny (24 September 1937) establishes a bravura tone for much of the set of concertos, bright, tempered, even intimate in its reflective moments. The two acoustic renditions of the miniatures, the Bagatelle and the 6 Ecossaises testify to a debonair acolyte of the Beethoven style. Kempff applies a true “Aoelian harp” sensibility to his collaboration with Paul van Kempen in the Beethoven G Major Concerto, in which Kempff’s own first movement and third movement cadenzas add to the gracious finesse of the occasion. One could make a case for the idiosyncratic rubato Kempff demonstrates, to which Kempen and ensemble remain keenly alert. Their subtle transition from the Andante to the Vivace – Presto finale displays a natural sense of drama, and the punctuations of color from the German Opera House Orchestra enjoy any number of gradations of timbre, some of which project a salon intimacy.

That Kempff recorded the Emperor Concerto (6 January 1936) with Peter Raabe instead of Furtwaengler or Abendroth makes us think that conductor Raabe remained Kempff’s personal choice. Raabe, unfortunately, associated himself too blatantly with Nazi politics for his career to endure beyond 1945. The Allegro movement reveals wonderful fluency and propulsive articulation without deferring to the music’s strictly martial, stentorian possibilities. An absolutely lucid theme and variations leads to a rollicking Rondo: Allegro, rustic and pompously elaborate, at once.

The 1925 Concerto in C Major – the work’s debut on recordings – lists no conductor, suggesting that Kempff, like Edwin Fischer, led the Berlin State Opera Orchestra from the keyboard. Brisk tempos and alert response – despite the hollow reverberation of the acoustic process – from the winds and horns in the opening Allegro con brio accentuate the music’s propulsive, military air. The sheer digital acuity of Kempff’s trills and runs testify that the virtuoso cooperates with the poet in this bravura reading. A languorous, spacious Largo leads to a playful, entirely witty Rondo: Allegro that enjoys pushes and pulls rife with musical character. The often alla musette quality of Kempff’s filigree add to the post-Mozart sense of improvised activity.

The latest inscription of the concerto set, the No. 3 in c minor (11 June 1942), exhibits a resolve and power no less marked by an exuberant buoyancy of tone. Kempff retains something of the late-Mozart sensibility, especially in his accentuation of the treble registers over the harmonic wanderings of the bass line. Scintillating runs mark Kempff’s realization, accompanied no mean moving trill. The power often derives from Kempen’s inflamed Dresden orchestra, moving to Kempff’s own cadenza, which certainly illustrates his singing tone. The Largo movement seems unusually extended in this performance, almost an adumbration of a Glenn Gould tempo.  The even character of Kempff’s sonority and the support from Kempern’s wind choir stamps the performance with its ring of authenticity. The Rondo: Allegro enjoys an impish, virtuoso sensibility, with Kempff supported by some marvelous trumpet work. I can only wish Kempff had inscribed the work later with the likes of Rosbaud and Fricsay.

The Beethoven sonata recordings by Kempff traverse the period 1925-1936, and they include acoustic and electrical inscriptions. The F-sharp Major Sonata, Op. 78 (1932) reveals much of the Kempff approach: thoughtful, lyrical, sensitive to both dynamic and harmonic shifts as measured by tiny agogic adjustments. The Allegro vivace combines rapid motion and aggressive scalar work with a continuity of balanced gestures. The so-called “Les Adieux” Sonata, Op. 81a (1928) unfolds in highly expressive phrases, rife with wonder and bold affirmation. The bell-peal sonorities acknowledge Kempff’s exquisite touch and pedal when he senses the majesty in the score. While retaining a degree of mystery, the Andante espressivo moves resolutely, a meditation that plumbs some depths to find the light, Vivacissamente. Kempff’s playing here converts the last movement into a toccata of often startling contrasts.

The Op. 90 e minor Sonata (1928) – along with Op. 101 and Op. 81a – receives its first commercial recording here from Kempff. The great Beethoven pianist Artur Schnabel often spoke of the elusive qualities of this concentrated work, whose high-gloss expressivity hails much of the Romantic sensibility. The materials build up, evanesce, regroup, and perpetually shimmer in some otherworldly restless light. The second movement’s E Major modality appears in the guise of melody saturated with tender mercy that only Schubert might approach. Kempff’s synoptic realization projects the music at a radiant distance, enfolding the aural space with gradations of light, a painting from Turner.

Kempff’s rendering of the Hammerklavier Sonata (7 & 25 January 1936) emphasizes its lyrical scope and polyphonic progressions without the heaven-storming bombast we might expect of more ‘virtuosic’ interpreters. In this respect, Kempff’s approach resembles that of his contemporary Louis Kentner, who inscribed “the Mount Everest of Sonatas” in 1939. The Scherzo from Kempff passes quickly, a gossamer butterfly’s wing.  The Adagio sostenuto, however, displays Kempff in his true medium, that of the chorale. Given Kempff’s expansive breadth, the movement exceeds eighteen minutes, about the length of a symphonic movement from Mahler. A mix of solipsistic devotion and universal compassion, the movement achieves a vision Somerset Maugham describes for his protagonist in The Razor’s Edge, having meditated atop Himalayan peaks.  A moment or two of contrapuntal mania in the last movement Largo – Allegro – Allegro risoluto passes through some thunderbolts before Kempff’s passion concedes that Bach’s tempered spirit must prevail.

The Op 101 in A Major provides us Kempff’s 1925 acoustic recording – courtesy of the British Library – and even within the limits of the recording process, a plethora of musical wisdom emerges. Beauty of tone appears to be Kempff’s first priority, but he soon invokes his capacity polyphonic clarity, which in the last movement achieves the freedom of the dance, virtually elfin in character. Silken gestures open the Sonata No. 30 in E, Op. 109, (29 July 1936) diaphanous but resolute in their progression to “the point.” The ensuing Prestissimo moves with light feet, on the border of lost control but rife with dynamic coloration. The finale, an Andante molto cantabile theme and variations, suffers some compression since Kempff does not take repeats. What Kempff does project, however, basks in the security of his vision, which often whispers rather than declaims its truth. Another Aeolian harp phenomenon occurs in the A-flat Major, Op. 110 (29 July 1936), again compressed from a lack of repeats in the second movement Allegro molto. Kempff takes the final movement fugue at a brisk pace, without losing either its dragonfly delicacy or clarity. The bass chords lose something of their stentorian declamation to become more chorale-like and warmly meditative. Finally, we have the Op. 111 in c minor (31 July 1936), possessing among the most demonic of Beethoven’s opening movements. Kempff does not eschew the potent drama of his bass line, leading to the Allegro con brio that flows with a tumultuous undercurrent of conflicted emotions. The subsequent Arietta retains the repeats, allowing Kempff a mighty breadth to his singular conception. Kempff rather glides through these eight variations in C Major, some of which anticipate the metrics of jazz. Kempff’s technical prowess may not consistently meet Beethoven’s demands, but the spirit of transcendence – the miraculous within the quotidian – experiences release throughout this often blistering account.

—Gary Lemco