WILHELM KEMPFF: The Complete Polydor Recordings, 1927-1936 = Works by Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann [complete listing below] – APR 5638 74:38 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Wilhelm Kempff (1895-1991), like Arthur Rubinstein, trained under Karl Heinrich Barth (1847-1922), to become a major exponent of the German piano school of scholarly virtuosos, emphasizing sound and spirit over sheer, technical prowess. Along with Artur Schnabel, Kempff devoted much of his energy to the music of Beethoven; even Schnabel considered Kempff a worthy candidate to complete the recorded cycle of Beethoven sonatas for EMI, should Schnabel be unable to finish the survey. Generally faithful to the music, Kempff avoided becoming a literalist: he retained a strong sense of individualism, occasionally omitting repeats and doubling bass notes. Kempff looked for the poetry in any score he addressed, and so the music of the German Romantics, Schubert and Schumann, benefit greatly from his attentions, and so does Liszt. Kempff does not aim for high voltage but rather a canny moderation that rarely thunders but impressed with logic and deep sincerity of expression. Originally a student of the organ, Kempff felt a natural impulse to sound out the grand sonorities from his keyboard, a combination of simplicity of style with symphonic aspirations.
Kempff began recording for Polydor as early as 1922, even committing to acoustical shellac two of his own Bach transcriptions. The bulk of his early legacy lay with Beethoven, and he would return to this repertory when the electrical sound process came into being after 1925. The 1931 Sinfonia from Cantata 29 serves as a fine example of the brisk and fervent joy Kempff could project in a piece that Rachmaninoff, too, found congenial for transcription. Kempff achieves diverse, arresting sonorities in his preludes and fugues from WTC I, recorded 1928-1931, that preserve their complexity of counterpoint with thoughtful clarity of line. Some may find the pacing of the movements of the July 1935 French Suite No. 5 a bit too brisk – as in the brilliant Courante – as might be said of Schubert’s fourth Moment musical. Still, the finesse in the playing asserts a fleet mastery of the style, and the articulation remains transparently delicate.
A definite find for connoisseurs will be the A Major Sonata of Mozart, also from July 1935, in which Kempff maintains all of the composer’s repeats, while the first two movements project a sober virtuosity. Like Rubinstein and Curzon, Kempff felt more drawn to the large-scale concertos of Mozart than to the salon, solo pieces, and this sonata recording is one of a kind. Kempff’s playing of his own transcription of Liszt’s handling of the Schubert “Hark! Hark! the Lark,” D. 889 gained international currency when Kempff broadcast his playing aboard the Graf Zeppelin! The extensive liner notes by Stephen Siek go into dazzling detail of how this broadcast initiated Kempff into celebrity for his improvisatory treatment of Liszt’s contribution, what Siek calls “dizzying panache.”
My own, immediate musical tropism, Kempff’s playing of Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (“Sleepers Awake!”) from January 1936 combines the power of plainchant with the C.P.E. Bach notion of layered sensitivity (empfindsamkeit). No less compelling, Kempff’s 1927 Largo from the F Minor Concerto resonates with an other-worldly vision, even more laden with transcendence than the revered performance of the whole opus by Edwin Fischer. Both haunted and haunting, the 1931 version of the Siciliano from the E-flat Flute Sonata bears a radiance that we do hear again, occasionally, from Elly Ney. The concluding piece, Schumann’s Träumerei from Kinderszenen, the perennial Horowitz encore, presents us with ppp phrasing that manages a music-box intimacy. In these meticulous transfers and restorations by Mark Obert-Thorn, we discover in Kempff the poetical side of German, lyric keyboard artistry in a satisfying variety of repertory.
WILHELM KEMPFF: The Complete Polydor Recordings, 1927-1936:
French Suite No. 5 in G Major, BWV 816;
WTC I: Prelude and Fugue in C# Major, WV 848; Prelude and Fugue in D Major, BWV 850 (2 versions);
Italian Concerto in F Major, BWV 971: First Movement;
BACH (arr. Kempff):
Largo, BWV 1056;
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 645;
Siciliano, BWV 1031;
Wir danken dir, Gott, BWV 829;
MOZART: Piano Sonata in A Major, K. 331;
SCHUBERT (arr. Kempff): Horch! Horch! Die Lerch;
SCHUBERT: Moments musicaux, D. 780: Nos. 3,4; Impromptu in B-flat Major, D. 935/2;
SCHUMANN: Aufschwung, Op. 12/2; Träumerei, Op. 15/7