Freddy Kempf’s artistry has matured with the years. Some of his early recordings seemed over-focused on barnstorming; but here he embraces qualities essential for this repertoire – sensitivity, probing exploration and intimate ambience. He presents an essentially empathetic account of the Fantasiestücke; gives the exquisite Blumenstück all the attention to detail it needs; and reveals his seriousness of purpose in the Etudes Symphoniques. Of the latter’s various editions and optional extras, Kempf has opted for the 1852 edition, amplified by the five extra variations edited by Brahms and also the third and ninth etudes that were omitted by Schumann after 1837.
There is real beauty to Kempf’s sound, especially in the lyrical moments of the Fantasiestücke, and careful, intelligent voicing of the very contrapuntal Etudes Symphoniques. That’s not to say he avoids all risk: at times he allows his touch to be so light that some of the notes almost don’t sound (eg the scherzo-like Variation 4 in the Etudes Symphoniques). While there are hints here and there of the old tendency to extremes of tempo choices – occasional scrambles or sluggishness (the latter in, eg, the obsessive rhythms of Variation 7 of the Etudes Symphoniques) – there’s also rewarding flair which never seems to exist for its own sake, but pursues a larger total impression.