WORKS: Symphony No. 3 (Eroica)
PERFORMER: Berlin PO/Rudolf Kempe
CATALOGUE NO: SBT 1270 ADD mono/stereo
These six Testament discs, reviving EMI recordings first issued between 1956 and 1961, reveal Rudolf Kempe (1910-76) as a gentle spirit, one whose ability to distil in sound the rapturously introspective spiritual world of Lohengrin and Parsifal is both exquisitely moving and practically unrivalled. Throughout these discs are moments of soft-grained, lyrical eloquence, and Kempe is far from one-dimensional: the finale of Dvorák’s New World Symphony receives a bracing performance, Beethoven’s Prometheus Overture a delightfully effervescent one.
Even so, I find most of these performances frustratingly uneven. Kempe’s conducting was more instinctively expressive than cerebral or conceptual, and the recording studio notoriously inhibits spontaneity. Thus Kempe’s gentleness can too quickly become gentlemanly; many of these readings lumber on in a polite, dutiful, unengaged way. Yet on the heels of such passages emerge glimpses of warmth, urgency, or eloquence that redeem the performance after all.
If the Wagner programme responds most consistently to Kempe’s expressive qualities, the conductor’s treatment of pungent fervour in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique seems least effective – the awkward transition to the Allegro in the first movement and some inept, clumsy percussion-playing only compound the difficulties. Although Kempe’s usual orchestra on these discs is the Berlin Philharmonic, with the Vienna Philharmonic stepping in for Wagner and Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture, the Mozart and Haydn disc finds Kempe leading the Philharmonia Orchestra, with anomalously sleeker, more homogeneous, and slightly less soulful results. The spiritual dimension returns for Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, where Kempe, while seeming not to force either tempo or intensity, achieves genuine grandeur and a cumulative impact that dispels annoyance at the rhythmically distorted horns in the scherzo.
In the end, the Wagner disc and Beethoven’s Eroica seem to me the cream of this crop. Those interested in a single-disc introduction to Kempe’s artistry, however, might find the flexible and immediate live performances on BBC Legends BBCL 4056-2 – including a Dvorák New World Symphony that trumps even the present fine one – to be an ideal starting point.