British pianist Freddy Kempf came to public attention back in 1992 when he won the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition. Since then he’s enjoyed an international performing career, with his recorded discography including Prokofiev Concertos, JS Bach Partitas and most recently, for BIS, a disc of Rachmaninov, Ravel and Stravinsky. His live recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations is available exclusively as our cover CD with the August issue of BBC Music Magazine.
‘The Goldbergs have become a touchstone, an Everest that keyboard players feel impelled to climb,’ wrote our critic Paul Riley in the August issue of BBC Music Magazine: was that your experience?
I did feel a compulsion to perform them from when I was at college, but not right away. It was only after I started to learn the piece that I thought, gosh, this is quite an undertaking. But once it was there, I wanted to keep it in my repertoire. With some repertoire you tend to replace it with new music, but I’ve played the Goldbergs for three or four years running.
This performance was recorded live on the Isle of Man in July 2009. Do you remember the concert?
Yes, very clearly. This festival is in the main holiday spot on the Isle of Man, but it’s actually in a tiny little town. When I arrived, I’d almost forgotten that I’d in fact played there back in 1993 just after BBC Young Musician of the Year. So old memories came back. Also it coincided with the end of Wimbledon. I rushed from the airport to try to catch the end of a match – either the semi-final or the final. Someone gave me a call saying did I want to rehearse, and I said I’d rather watch the tennis! But ten minutes later I had another call saying the BBC would like to do a sound check. So I rushed down to the church. I had to find out about the tennis later.
And what was the church like?
The Erin Arts Centre is a converted church – a lovely, intimate venue. I guess for the Goldbergs that makes performing them even more daunting. In a big echoey place, if you miscalculate one thing then hopefully it’ll get lost in the acoustic, in this one it didn’t. But the audience is an appreciative one – I just played there again recently.
The sublime opening Aria is the theme for the whole piece: how does it unfold for the performer after that?
The theme is the most relaxing point of the piece. You walk on stage, and you’ve get plenty of time to prepare and quietly work out what tempo you need. You’re fresh at that point. Then you start, and with the First Variation it all gets going. It’s like being thrown in the deep end really – there’s no let up. After 45-50 minutes your brain starts to get more dehydrated and concentration, at least for me, becomes a big problem. It’s so taxing on the body, I found that simple things went wrong that wouldn’t do in other pieces.
Do you have a favourite recording of the Goldbergs?
Ronald Smith was one of my main piano teachers. I studied with him from the ages of 6 to 14. He was very strict about not letting me listen to other people’s recordings while I was learning something. I don’t know why, but that habit has stuck with me. So I haven’t really heard that many recordings of the Goldbergs. I’ve heard Angela Hewitt on the radio and Glenn Gould – my wife has both recordings – but at the same time I can’t really say I’ve listened to any in particular detail.
So for you, the score is the starting point?
I find with this piece, with all the repeats, it allows for quite a bit of freedom. I’ve always thought Bach probably did quite a bit of improvisation on the repeats. And I’d imagine that if he suddenly had a concert Steinway in a modern large acoustic, he would have been fascinated by what he could do with it. I do try to see it from that point of view – Bach was a pioneer at the keyboard.
Interview by Rebecca Franks