MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 24; Piano Concerto No. 8, Piano Sonata No. 11; Fantasia – Wilhelm Kempff – Praga Digitals

The Kempff Mozart recordings combine an elastic gravity with refined delicacy. 

MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 24 in c minor, K. 491; Piano Concerto No. 8 in C Major, K. 246; Piano Sonata No. 11 in A Major, K. 331; Fantasia in d minor, K. 397 – Wilhelm Kempff, piano – Bamberg Sym. Orch. (K. 491)/ Berlin Philharmonic Orch./ Ferdinand Leitner – Praga Digitals PRD 250 359, 79:57 (10/7/16) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:

Praga gathers recordings by the great German piano master Wilhelm Kempff (1895-1991) recorded 1960-1962, of which the two works set in a minor key point to Mozart’s affinities with a burgeoning Romanticism. A case in point arises in the January 1961 reading of the unfinished 1782 Fantasia in d minor, K. 397, whose striking inwardness (Lento) wants to linger in an exalted space, but whose contrasting impulsiveness creates a palpable tension. Suddenly, in the last pages, a galant music-box sensibility dispels the clouds of doubt, although the authenticity of the conclusion remains questionable. Kempff allots to this rich piece his special presence.

The 1786 Concerto No. 24 in c minor seems to be having a feast of recorded attention lavished upon it: the present performance from Bamberg dates from 1960. Under Ferdinand Leitner, Mozart’s scoring assumes the kind of broad girth we know makes this concerto unusual. In ¾ time, the opening Allegro instills in us deep sense of the tragic muse, The melodic contour Kempff and Leitner follow traverse a wide range of operatic gestures, If unremittingly melancholy, the work enjoys no less striking color – including most of the notes of the chromatic scale – especially since oboes and clarinets fill in the open work with keyboard. The brief excursions into E-flat Major do little to alleviate the “fateful” progression of the music as a whole. Kempff provides his own cadenzas for the outer movements; and these, too, venture into harmonically audacious regions.

A qualified relief comes in the form of the lyrical E-flat Major Larghetto, a rondo set in cut common time. Much of the movement plays as a pastoral wind serenade, with especial color from the bassoon. Kempff plays the keyboard transitions as alert mini-cadenzas, after which the winds provide interludes and commentary. The incursion of c minor into this movement suggests that the idyll suffers disturbed influences. The melancholy Allegretto finale presents a theme and eight variants, But those from the second variant onward become double variations, in that the second half of each becomes its own permutation of the original. The woodwinds contribute to the strange mood of resigned invention; the clouds refuse to lift from the jeweled beauty of the progression, to which Kempff’s own cadenza adds a romantic allure. The 6/8 coda, while brilliant, only confirms the pathos of the whole, which has rarely smiled although it has laughed from to time.

Kempff performed (January 1962) the 1776 Concerto No. 8 in C at a time when few pianists who were not involved integrally with the Mozart concerto cycle played it at all.  The piece means to show off the instrumental agility of the solo part, at the time Countess Antonia Luetzow, herself an adept pianist. The series of delicate ornaments that invest the first movement Allegro aperto suggest the kinds of refinements that she might have created ad libitum. The high quality of a concerted work with three alternative cadenzas, available to ‘gifted amateurs, confirms the early Beidermeier sensibility of the period. The character of the Andante, with its fluent galanterie, corresponds to the Haffner Serenade that comes from the same period in Mozart’s creative output. Kempff instills a delicate serenity in this work that ensures its appeal. The French influence permeates the last movement Rondeau: Tempo di minuetto. Much of the music reminds us of a divertimento with piano obbligato, rather freewheeling with hunt motifs and an easy gait that reminds us of the violin concertos of Mozart’s nineteenth year.

The Sonata in A Major (c. 1778-1783) has had for me two great interpreters, Solomon Cutner and Wilhelm Kempff. The unusually expansive first movement – a theme of two eight-measure sections, each repeated – defied Classical convention of the period. The homogeneity of design – the narrow tonal range (A Major and a minor) of all three movements – makes the work almost Baroque in affect.  Kempff maintains the flow and continuity of the variants without sag, coloring each with a fluency of touch and nuance – especially in the spirited coda – quite his own. The second movement offers a minuet and trio in A Major with an affecting modulation to D Major. Curiously, Mozart rejected any sonata-form structure in this work. The wild, janissary Turkish rondo has made this sonata immortal. Here, Mozart’s color scheme becomes audacious, even wandering into f-sharp minor. Before the final denouement Mozart sounds octaves in both A Major and C-sharp. Kempff makes the various color dynamics alluring and exciting at once, imparting clarity and warmth without sentimentality or false bravura.

—Gary Lemco

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