Schumann, Brahms, Beethoven, Bach, Couperin, Rameau & Handel

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COMPOSERS: Bach,Beethoven,Brahms,Couperin,Rameau & Handel,Schumann
ALBUM TITLE: Collection: Wilhelm Kempff Ð Complete Fifties Solo Recordings
WORKS: Works by Schumann, Brahms, Beethoven, Bach, Couperin, Rameau & Handel
PERFORMER: Wilhelm Kempff (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 474 393-2 AAD/ADD mono/stereo Reissue
These performances, given at a time when Wilhelm Kempff was at the height of his career, prove beyond doubt that on a good day he could produce interpretations of quite wonderful insight and pianistic mastery. More than that: his unique style of cantabile could make you momentarily forget the limitations of the instrument.


The best of the recordings here have probably never been surpassed, for instance the Schumann C major Fantasy, its first movement splendidly impulsive, and the luminous tone of its slow finale undemonstratively allows contrapuntal lines that remain hidden in many other performances to emerge. And the atmosphere of each of Brahms’s Op. 10 Ballades is perfectly captured. In Beethoven’s Appassionata, its intensity and relaxation are in perfect equipoise; and the majority of the late Brahms pieces – those ‘cradle songs of my sufferings’, as the composer called them, are exquisite.

It’s true that on occasion Kempff could get bogged down in his own curious view of the music: his C sharp minor Capriccio from Brahms’s Op. 76 set, for instance, is anything but ‘agitato’; while the opening Intermezzo from Op. 119 – a piece Brahms wanted played as slowly as possible – sounds more like a flowing Andante than a profound Adagio. But one can easily forgive such lapses, because the next piece or movement is almost always breathtakingly beautiful.

That’s certainly the case in the Brahms F minor Sonata, where the work’s far-flung initial gestures are curiously dry in effect (Kempff’s 1969 Queen Elizabeth Hall performance, issued on BBC Legends, is preferable from this point of view, though not in other respects), and the central scherzo a touch over-Teutonic, but the main slow movement is quite spellbinding. Schumann’s Kreisleriana is a bit of a mixed bag, too: its more intimate numbers admirably handled, but elsewhere occasionally lacking in impulsiveness.


It’s worth mentioning that these performances were given at a time when the odd wrong note resulting from the pursuit of artistic truth was not a crime punishable by musical death at the hand of a thousand edits. The recordings, mostly in mono, have come up very well in these new transfers; and the stereo sound of the Brahms and Beethoven sonatas is as good as anything being produced today. No one who appreciates great pianism should be without this set. Misha Donat