LABELS: DG Collectors Edition
WORKS: Piano Sonatas (complete)
PERFORMER: Wilhelm Kempff (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 463 766-2 ADD Reissue (1965-70)
This is a treasure-house of artistry at its most penetrating and inspired. A more beautiful and illuminating performance of the great G major Sonata or the ‘little’ A major it would be hard to imagine. The justice of Alfred Brendel’s remark that ‘at his best, he played more beautifully than any of us’ is borne out again and again in this cherishable set. So, however, is the implication that like most of the greatest artists Kempff was notably erratic. But the variability is evident not only in the quality of the performances (the fearsome ‘little’ A minor, D784, is remarkably stolid) but in outlook – and in this case that’s the highest compliment.
Revealed here is not ‘how Kempff played Schubert’ but ‘how Kempff played this Schubert and that Schubert’. Each work, each movement, is conceived and projected on its own terms. The meltingly lyrical, multi-layered, rhythmically subtle and magically coloured performance of the G major Sonata is of a completely different kind than the equally great, often intimidating accounts of the ‘big’ A minor, D845, and the ‘Unfinished’ C major. These are conceived and unfurled as great symphonies for keyboard. Huge, implacable, intense and deliberately uningratiating, these are towering performances which emphasize that Schubert’s range was no less great than Beethoven’s – and Kempff’s no less than anyone’s.
Complete cycles of the Schubert sonatas are rare, but artistry like this is rarer still. Combined with a subtlety so rich and sophisticated that it’s sometimes almost distracting, is a capacity for the utmost simplicity which is a hallmark only of the very greatest artists. The sheer variety of his sound, like that of his rhythmic articulation, melodic inflection and polyphonic illumination, should be a perennial education and inspiration to nine tenths of pianists playing today. A lot of adjectives? Maybe, but no fewer than Kempff’s musical ones. Jeremy Siepmann