Freddy Kempf

The British pianist recalls the challenges of recording Prokofiev's Second and Third Concertos 

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You’ve enterprisingly included the Second Sonata with these two concertos. What gave you the idea?

I guess BIS records thought it would be slightly stingy to only have the Second and Third Concertos, and I put the Second Sonata in just because it fitted in in terms of when it was composed [alongside the Second Concerto] and I thought it bridged the gap between the two concertos.

Which of these works did you particularly look forward to recording?

It’s hard to say. I’m not the type of person that looks forward to recordings, to be honest; I find them very hard work – I tend to look forward much more to concerts. There’s also a difference between how I felt before the recording and actually while we were doing it.

I remember I was toying with the idea of putting the Third [Sonata] down – I had both that and the Second Sonata prepared, but I actually found myself enjoying the Second more than I expected to. I particularly loved the slow movement which really opened up for me during the sessions, because I’ve got quite a demanding producer [Jens Braun] who always pushes me to the very limit. He would make me do that movement again, trying to see if I could get something else out of it.

And what about the concertos – how was it recording them compared to a concert situation?

With the concertos it’s always difficult because there’s so many other people involved. I think the Third Concerto was much more difficult to record than I’d anticipated just because it’s so busy and so much going on.

There were things we did during the sessions that just wouldn’t work in concert. I remember us getting the horns to almost stand up and point their bells directly at the mikes and that worked on record. But when we did that a week later in concert we had to really tone them down because that was all we could really hear at that point.

And what about the Second Concerto, with its notoriously demanding cadenza?

I remember being able to enjoy recording the cadenza of the Second rather than perform it, because in concert you’re always exhausted by the time you get there, and it's slightly nerve-wracking because everyone’s sitting there watching you, there’s just silence apart from yourself, and you know it’s quite a big ordeal.

So it was actually very nice to have a recording session and be able to concentrate on it as music rather than as an endurance test.

How did you find working with Andrew Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic?

I’ve worked with Andrew a lot over the years, and I’ve always enjoyed working with him, especially with Prokofiev; there’s never very much to work out – we seem to agree on the same idea without even having to state it in the first place.

The funny thing is just recently I rehearsed Prokofiev’s Third again with Andrew and the Bergen, and Andrew teased me, saying ‘we’ve got the piano tuner with 30 replacement strings standing by’.

I’d completely forgotten, but during the sessions the strings were breaking every five minutes and we had the piano tuner rushing on and desperately trying to replace the strings while the whole orchestra and Andrew were twiddling their thumbs and telling jokes.

Interview by Daniel Jaffé

Extract: Piano Concerto No. 2, first movement (cadenza)
Image: Monique Deul