Author Topic: Wilhelm Kempff Plays Beethoven  (Read 5103 times)

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Offline Todd

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Wilhelm Kempff Plays Beethoven
« on: December 02, 2013, 08:13:58 PM »




How good is Wilhelm Kempff?  I mean, really, how good is he?  At his best, he matches anyone and surpasses most.  In some ways this ought not to be.  Kempff was not a dazzling virtuoso.  In some live recordings, there are slips and memory lapses that should derail the performances – yet, in many cases, that does not happen.  Even in some studio recordings, Kempff comes across as not especially secure technically.  Take his Liszt concertos.  His playing is light and comparatively quiet and definitely lacking in dynamics, and there isn't even a hint of diabolical intensity or fiery impetuosity, yet the recordings work in there own way.  Even the rare studio efforts that just aren't very good – his Chopin, which is too stiff, slow, and sometimes almost heavy – still have some strong points (eg, his ravishing Andante spianato), and his take on the Goldberg Variations, derailed for me by a lack of ornamentation, still boasts some of the most beautiful Bach playing around.  (I really wish Kempff would have recorded a full WTC.)  How did he do it? 

When contemplating Kempff and his artistry, the CBS interview with Bruno Walter, previously packaged with the stereo Mahler 9th, comes to mind.  In it, Walter opined on one difference between Bruckner and Mahler was that whereas Mahler was searching for God, Bruckner had found God.  While I wouldn't go so far as to state that Kempff found God, though he certainly may have, it seems to me that in a more practical sense, Kempff, by the time of his great post-war recordings, had arrived at a place artistically where he was comfortable and secure and played music, all music, with a sureness and profundity that can only really be achieved when an artist reaches such a place.  Not being an artist, I could be way off, but it sure sounds that way to me.  His generally beautiful tone; his mastery of quiet playing, finding numerous fine gradations between pianissimo and piano; his depth, poetry, and, where called for, serenity, all combine into something special for me. 

And never more so than in the core Germanic repertoire.  His Schubert just sort of floats above all comers, missing the intensity of some other great pianists, but achieving a transcendent beauty and poise that no one, not even Andras Schiff, he of supreme artistic refinement, can quite match.  His Brahms and Schumann, while not the stormiest, most romantic takes out there, display clarity, sureness, and a just right sound that always works for me.  His Mozart is, in a word, delightful.  His Beethoven, well, that's what Kempff is really about it, isn't it?  Both of Kempff's studio sets of the sonata cycle land in my personal Top Ten, something not even Wilhelm Backhaus manages to do.  Both cycles are sublime, with each and every sonata receiving its extraordinarily well thought out, poetic due.  Whenever I listen to Kempff's Beethoven, I listen to greatness in both composition and interpretation.  When I found out about a new cycle, recorded live in Tokyo in 1961, there really was no question whether I would get the cycle.  It was just a timing thing.

So I got it, and I listened.  It's essentially what I expected, though sometimes more, and, alas, sometimes less.  Kempff has always seemed equally at home in the early and the late sonatas, and the early sonatas here all sound dandy.  The close, dry, bass-shy recordings reveal Kempff's style satisfactorily, and Kempff plays the works with spirit and energy, but also with more than a few slips.  Sometimes he surprises: the last movement of 2/1 is more intense than I would have imagined, and 2/3 is more overtly showy than I anticipated.  Sometimes he exactly meets expectations: Op 7 is a lyrical delight, and offered a well-timed, lovely antidote to the bruising new take by Maurizio Pollini.  Op 10 is generally excellent, and 10/3 is especially good for the first three movements, with great piano and pianissimo playing, and the slow movement is effectively intense, but the last movement is just too sloppy and sort of ruins what came before.  Opp 14/1 (especially) and 2 are also curiously sloppy for some reason, but they are still fun. 

When it came time to listen to the Pathetique, I asked myself 'why listen to one version when I can listen to four?'  So that's what I did, in chronological order, starting with his 1936 recording.  Not too surprisingly, the four versions all sound similar in style.  Also not too surprisingly, the 1936 (not too much editing with 78s!) and the 1961 are similar in that they are a bit more impetuous, more vibrant, and more immediately alive than the standard studio recordings.  Kempff does not storm the heavens in any version, but he delivers a light-ish yet effective approach, and I must say that the slightly cutting sound of the stereo recording helps here.  In in this case, call it something of a draw between all the versions.

Opp 22 and 26 are both nicely characterized, 27/2 is more or less like I expected it to be, as was 27/1, though there are perhaps too many slips, which detracts from the music.

I've always rather fancied Kempff in Op 28, preferring his stereo recording to all others I've heard, so I decided to listen to all three versions.  The DG mono set, while very good, lacks the same charm that the stereo recording brings to the fore more often.  The phrasing is a bit clipped, and Kempff sounds less solid technically.  The 1961 recording, while it has a few memory lapses, including a noticeable one near the end of the first movement, sounds more lively than the studio mono set and almost as charming as the stereo.  The stereo recording maintains its top slot in this work, for the perfect balance of intensity, charm, and near effortlessness/effortless lyricism.  Still, here the live recording is something I will gladly revisit, and is a highlight of the cycle.

On to the ever important Op 31.  Not too surprisingly, it is very good.  There are more slips, but here they are generally not too bad, and one also gets to hear in 31/1 a prime example of how to recover from a memory lapse while making it seem that it was intentional.  31/2 is more poetic than stormy, and 31/3 lacks the last bit of wit, but all is better than well.  The Op 49 ditties are quite nice, too.

Op 53 surprised me.  Kempff plays it faster than expected, commits few unforced errors, and really brings the piece to life.  Superb!  Op 57 is a bit less secure, but the opening movement, with its insistent repeated notes and thundering (for Kempff) climaxes, and effective merging of middle period storminess and late period transcendence in the last movement, bridged by a serene middle movement, is quite something.  Both basically match his studio efforts.

For Op 54, I went the four version route again.  With the DG mono, the opening movement sounds lyrical, beautiful, flowing, with more vibrant sections controlled and strong but still pleasant – perhaps too much so?  (Nah.)  The second movement offers a charming and fun jaunt through the music.  The 1961 recording opening movement alternates between intimate quiet passages and stormier vibrant sections, and the second movement sounds a little too loose, and not quite as charming.  The DG stereo recording opening sounds similar to DG mono, but the brighter, harder sound detracts slightly from the lyricism.  The second movement lacks a bit in charm and sounds a wee bit congested.  The BBC Legends 1969 is again quite similar to the DG mono, with gorgeous slow sections and strong fast sections, though it's not as secure.  The second movement sounds big and occasionally forceful, and regains a fair bit of the fun and charm of the studio version.  DG mono wins, though. 

Opp 78, 79, 81a are all excellent, but sort of act as filler until arriving at one the best ever recordings of Op 90.  The second movement, in particular, is a stream of beautiful music, transcending (rightly) Schubertian goodness and heading straight to Elysian Fields.  Kempff was on.

Op 101, like Opp 13 and 54 before it, got the four version treatment.  The DG mono recording is clipped and sprightly in the first two movements, slightly tense yet ethereal in the slow movement, and downright joyous in the fugue – yes, a joyous fugue.  Kempff displays nimble enough fingerwork and admirable clarity.  It's perhaps a bit light, but it's transcendent.  The 1961 performance is similar, though a bit less secure, but right with the first movement there is a greater sense of deeper depths being plumbed or higher heights being scaled.  It is a perfect example of a live performance having that something special that many or most studio recordings do not offer.  The DG stereo recording is very much like the DG mono recording, though lacking that last tiny bit of energy and fun, but not enough to make this a less than superb reading.  The 1967 BBC Legends recording bests the other three, though, in a (near?) perfect reading.  It is more technically secure than the 1961 performance, but retains the vitality and depth – and perhaps offers even more of both.  It offers proof that Kempff, on a good night, could produce music as good as anyone ever could or will.

The mighty Op 106 has some too noticeable slips, and is not gigantic in scale, but rather is more personal, and at times, especially in the slow movement, sounds more like the last three sonatas than normal.  So, not a top choice, perhaps, but an individual take that I shall listen to again.

To the last three sonatas.  Op 109 is quick and virile in the first two movements, and positively sublime in the last movement.  Here is late Beethoven in all its transcendent glory, with an imaginative pianist offering the highest degree of recreative art.  It's much the same for Op 110, just less sublime.  Op 111 is fast 'n' almost furious in the opener, but not very secure.  The second movement opens with a magnificent Arietta and first two variations, but Kempff pushes things too far in the third variation, playing too sloppily and in too rushed a fashion.  But then he goes and redeems himself with the rest of the work, glimpsing musical Elysium in the process.  Yes, there are some boo-boos, but here they don't seem to matter at all.  So, the last three sonatas are mixed, peaking very high with 109.

These being concerts, one doesn't get just Beethoven sonatas – there are some tasty encores from Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, and Gluck/Brahms.  All are delightful, the Bach especially.

As good as the highlights are, though, I cannot say that this cycle matches the studio sets.  There are just too many slips, too many moments when Kempff is musically at sea, if even for brief moments, for it to rate among my favorite cycles.  The best recordings here – Opp 28, 53, 101, and especially 90 and 109 – can be compared to any recording by any pianist.  The rest really cannot.  I do enjoy this cycle, but it is not a great one, and it ends up in the vast middle group of available cycles.  This does not in any way diminish Kempff's stature in my eyes.  He is still one of the greatest Beethoven pianists.  He's got two of the best cycles yet recorded to prove it.

Packaging and presentation for the set is exemplary, and sound, as already mentioned, is close, dry, a bit bass shy, and definitely aged, though it never detracts in the least from enjoying the music.
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Offline XB-70 Valkyrie

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Re: Wilhelm Kempff Plays Beethoven
« Reply #1 on: December 02, 2013, 11:56:15 PM »
Thanks for the review. I have the complete Beethoven sonatas by Kempff on DG LP set (not even sure what pressing--too lazy to look now), but I will dig these out and have a listen soon. I have always loved his Brahms, and think he was undoubtedly one of the very greatest in Brahms' solo piano works. I have also always loved his Schumann concerto (early 50s on Decca LP), but am now curious to listen to the solo works.
« Last Edit: December 02, 2013, 11:58:58 PM by XB-70 Valkyrie »
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Offline aquablob

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Re: Wilhelm Kempff Plays Beethoven
« Reply #2 on: December 03, 2013, 08:26:07 AM »
Thanks, Todd.

Offline (: premont :)

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Re: Wilhelm Kempff Plays Beethoven
« Reply #3 on: December 03, 2013, 02:22:37 PM »
Thank you Todd for this comprehensive review. It is clear to me that this set isn´t mandatory, when one already owns the mono and stereo sets.
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Online Mandryka

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Re: Wilhelm Kempff Plays Beethoven
« Reply #4 on: December 23, 2013, 07:04:05 AM »
The op 109 in the 1961  live is particularly good I think, it makes me glad to have the set. More free and imaginative (with voice leading for example, in the second movement) than in the mono recordings from 1936 and the 1950s. It shows the wacky crazy unpredictable side to Kempff which IMO makes him a great musician.  I didn't check the stereo.

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Offline Bogey

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Re: Wilhelm Kempff Plays Beethoven
« Reply #5 on: December 23, 2013, 12:58:11 PM »
his Chopin, which is too stiff, slow, and sometimes almost heavy

I will have to check this out.
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Offline Bogey

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Re: Wilhelm Kempff Plays Beethoven
« Reply #6 on: December 23, 2013, 07:27:38 PM »
Silly question, but where can one find this cycle, Todd?
There will never be another era like the Golden Age of Hollywood.  We didn't know how to blow up buildings then so we had no choice but to tell great stories with great characters.-Ben Mankiewicz

Offline Todd

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Re: Wilhelm Kempff Plays Beethoven
« Reply #7 on: December 23, 2013, 09:41:15 PM »
Silly question, but where can one find this cycle, Todd?



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Offline Bogey

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Re: Wilhelm Kempff Plays Beethoven
« Reply #8 on: December 23, 2013, 09:45:18 PM »


HMV Japan.

Mandryka pointed this out once to me, but lost the info.  Thanks!
There will never be another era like the Golden Age of Hollywood.  We didn't know how to blow up buildings then so we had no choice but to tell great stories with great characters.-Ben Mankiewicz

Online Mandryka

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Re: Wilhelm Kempff Plays Beethoven
« Reply #9 on: February 13, 2018, 01:57:31 PM »
You people may know this 1936 op 109 already, I only discovered it today, I think it's sensational

<a href="https://www.youtube.com/v/Yeftyk6-scc" target="_blank" class="new_win">https://www.youtube.com/v/Yeftyk6-scc</a>

Is there a recording with a particularly successful transfer?
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Offline (: premont :)

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Re: Wilhelm Kempff Plays Beethoven
« Reply #10 on: February 13, 2018, 03:15:17 PM »
You people may know this 1936 op 109 already, I only discovered it today, I think it's sensational

<a href="https://www.youtube.com/v/Yeftyk6-scc" target="_blank" class="new_win">https://www.youtube.com/v/Yeftyk6-scc</a>

Is there a recording with a particularly successful transfer?

There is this newly released, which I have purchased but not yet heard:

https://www.prestoclassical.co.uk/classical/products/8081509--wilhelm-kempff-the-late-sonatas

The only other CD release, I know, is the Dante release from the 1990es, since long OOP.
Jens Laursen writes about it here:

http://ionarts.blogspot.com/2015/07/beethoven-sonatas-survey-of-complete.html

I own this release, because a good friend abroad sent it to me, and I have listened to it several times. The sound quality is acceptable. I do not know, how it compares to the first mentioned release. But I agree with you, that the interpretation is special and obviously more youthful than his later recordings, which I however also regard highly.
« Last Edit: February 13, 2018, 03:18:48 PM by (: premont :) »
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Online Mandryka

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Re: Wilhelm Kempff Plays Beethoven
« Reply #11 on: February 13, 2018, 10:36:38 PM »
I will get that APR CD premont, here's the 1927 Waldstein on YouTube which is also new to me, and I love it. Up to now, all I'd heard of his early recordings was op 106 and op 111

<a href="https://youtube.com/v/vKQZknhcsss" target="_blank" class="new_win">https://youtube.com/v/vKQZknhcsss</a>


« Last Edit: February 13, 2018, 10:42:48 PM by Mandryka »
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Offline (: premont :)

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Re: Wilhelm Kempff Plays Beethoven
« Reply #12 on: February 14, 2018, 02:35:57 AM »
I will get that APR CD premont, here's the 1927 Waldstein on YouTube which is also new to me, and I love it. Up to now, all I'd heard of his early recordings was op 106 and op 111

<a href="https://youtube.com/v/vKQZknhcsss" target="_blank" class="new_win">https://youtube.com/v/vKQZknhcsss</a>

There is quite a lot of confusion concerning the recording dates.

This page from Presto states that the date for the Waldstein is 11/16.6.1943:

https://www.prestoclassical.co.uk/classical/products/8363063--beethoven-the-complete-wartime-piano-sonata-recordings

while this discography states the year 1940 for the recording:

http://pianistdiscography.com/discography/pianistLabel.php?cdnum=4814&labRich=79&PIANIST=25

And there are discrepancies as to the recording date for several other sonatas:

http://pianistdiscography.com/discography/pianistLabelDisplay.php?labRichter=79&mediaType=0&PIANIST=25

As I got the APR release recently and have not listened to it so far, I was not aware of this.

I am confused. Did he record some of the sonatas twice?
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Online Mandryka

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Re: Wilhelm Kempff Plays Beethoven
« Reply #13 on: February 14, 2018, 09:07:06 AM »
This discography suggests he recorded it six times I think, I'm not totally sure I've read it correctly

http://www.panix.com/~checker/kempff.htm


Quote
Sonata 21 in C, Op. 53 (Waldstein).
a. @66036/8 [1694 1/2, 1695, 1696, 1697 1/2, ?, ?,
  suffixes all as; B27052/3/4/5/?/?]
b. 66678/80 [558, 559, 560, 561, 562, 563 1/2, suffixes
  all bm; B27184/9]
*c. 95474/6 [1205 3/4, 1206, 1207 1/2, 1208, 1209,
  1210, suffixes all BI-1], 57009/11; B.90277/9 (own);
  D.CA 8044/6 (also own)
d. 68276/8 [2237-4, 2238, 2239, 2240-2, 2241, 2242-4,
  suffixes all GS 9]; Vox set 463
e. 1951/2. 72135/6V, #18089; #D.DL 9590
f. $138 943
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Offline (: premont :)

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Re: Wilhelm Kempff Plays Beethoven
« Reply #14 on: February 14, 2018, 11:25:57 AM »
This discography suggests he recorded it six times I think, I'm not totally sure I've read it correctly

http://www.panix.com/~checker/kempff.htm

Yes, I saw that discography too. It does not state the recording dates except for the recording e), so it may be about different releases of the same recordings. I shall try to make A/B tests with the Dante and CPR recordings to find out, whether they are different recordings or not.
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Offline (: premont :)

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Re: Wilhelm Kempff Plays Beethoven
« Reply #15 on: February 15, 2018, 03:52:47 AM »
APR has released two batches of Beethoven sonatas by Kempff:

The complete wartime recordings recorded between 1940 and 1943, containing sonatas:
2, 9, 10, 11, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 12, 14, 21, 13,15, 18 and 23.

https://www.prestoclassical.co.uk/classical/products/8363063--beethoven-the-complete-wartime-piano-sonata-recordings

and The late sonatas, pre-war 78 RPMs recorded between 1925 and 1936 and containing sonatas: 24, 26, 27, 29, 28, 30, 31 and 32.

https://www.prestoclassical.co.uk/classical/products/8081509--wilhelm-kempff-the-late-sonatas

According to the information from Dante (recording dates, see individual sonatas):

http://pianistdiscography.com/discography/composerBio.php?comRich=5

the Dante releases are identical with the APR release as to sonatas judged from recording dates:
2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 13, 15, 18, 24, 26, 29, 30, 31 and 32.

Sonatas 27 and 28 were no part of the Dante release, only the APR

For Dantes release of sonatas  8, 12, 14, 21 and 23 the recording dates differ rather much from the recording dates of the APR release, and it must be different recordings.

But the question whether the YouTube Waldstein (said to date from 1927) differ from the Dante release (said to date from 1932) is not resolved. I think it is the same recording.

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