A collection which has given me great pleasure. Five hours of Kempff’s Schumann for DG‚ intelligently presented and in nicely freshened sound‚ make a handsome box. Sample it anywhere and there can be no mistaking who this is – you know great pianists by their sound. No detailed annotations‚ but a profile of Kempff and his own wise words on Schumann‚ from an interview in 1975‚ which should be enough to introduce him to new listeners‚ I would hope‚ and encourage them to find his wavelength. Does he need some special pleading? I have a feeling the times are not propitious for a new celebration of his excellence.
It is agreed he was one of the most distinguished German pianists of the last century‚ blossoming through two decadesRead more in the Austro-German repertory after the death of Schnabel and Edwin Fischer‚ but he never carried the flame quite as they did. He played a great deal and liked recording but he was variable. As he admits‚ there were times when he was a casual worker and should have practised more. He was never disposed to virtuoso self-representation and what he produced would not be described these days as exciting playing. Performing bravura pieces didn’t interest him‚ so the Toccata‚ the Concert Studies after Paganini‚ Op 10‚ and the Abegg Variations are not here. Nevertheless it’s a good selection‚ lacking only the Fantasy Pieces‚ Op 12‚ to give a rounded picture of the phenomenal explosion of Schumann’s creativity for the piano that took place between the age of 20 and 29 – what Kempff calls ‘the greatest and most significant works Schumann ever wrote’.
His special quality seems to me to be a songfulness and cantabile style which is in danger of becoming a forgotten art nowadays. There is much more to it than a vaguely pleasing lyricism. With Kempff it provides not just support for the phrase but the generation of a continuous breath‚ an airborne impetus‚ an elemental energy which sustains narrative‚ line and movement. Listening to him in Schumann it is as if a wind is blowing through‚ rising and falling‚ sweeping incident along and carrying everything forward: song‚ dance‚ stories‚ poems‚ moods‚ portraits‚ parades of characters‚ visions of landscape‚ recollections. Yes‚ words threatening to sound pretentious‚ and of course the music starts where the words end. Yet Kempff seems to have keys that unlock so much and to identify so naturally with the nonmusical imagination of Schumann.
Few players‚ I think‚ have rivalled his ease with these sources of inspiration and‚ more importantly‚ matched his infallible touch with the way the music holds together. As pianism his Carnaval may not leave you astonished‚ but it is immaculately characterised: festive‚ buoyant‚ irresistible in movement‚ the comings and goings of the masked personages and the guest appearances of ‘Chopin’ and ‘Paganini’ all spot on. Of course there’s no one right way to play this masterpiece‚ but his is vivid. Carnaval‚ Papillons and the Davidsbündlertänze are together on this first CD and it makes a great disc. Young man’s music but quite an elderly player. When he made the earliest of these recordings he was already 71; the latest are from his 78th year. In the later ones you notice more weight on the keys‚ less zip‚ and perhaps a reduced inclination to be volatile; but he has kept his technique in good trim and continues to sound at ease with the instrument. The difficult numbers in the Davidsbündlertänze are hard for every pianist‚ but Kempff doesn’t see them as virtuoso challenges to be confronted and dispatched. Always the music is paramount‚ and beautiful sound‚ and a control of voices under the fingers that seem to be following Schumann instinctively in the exploration of the piano’s potential. What a marvellous left hand he had (the opening of the C major Fantasy as good as Richter’s) – and that trill! What I miss sometimes is a will to push the boat out‚ to pursue extremes. He does not give you the thrill of the chase and there are no whirlwinds‚ no real prestos. The finale of the G minor Sonata really should be a bit faster. The Etudes symphoniques could do with more variety of dynamics and pace. He can be rather middly‚ a trait which Schumann’s liking for the middle of the piano possibly accentuates. But rather that than superficial agitation and false emphasis. The opening of Kreisleriana hangs fire as if he were feeling his way into it but the rest is magnificent and thrillingly projected‚ in a huge picture. When at his best you have the impression his insights are not only musical but brought to bear on every area of Schumann’s imagination.
All the big works have this definition and I count them among the best on record. The Fantasy comes high on my list‚ perhaps top‚ but I’m especially glad the undervalued Humoreske is included since it’s arguably the most personal of the great line – it’s also the last – and I’m so fond of it. Kempff says its secrets remained unlocked for him for decades until his friend Alfred Cortot urged him to play it. He is a guide to Schumann I would not be without‚ authoritative and companionable‚ balanced and most human.
-- Gramophone [10/2001]
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Works on This Recording
Concerto for Piano in A minor, Op. 54by Robert Schumann Performer:
Wilhelm Kempff (Piano)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic Written: 1841-1845; Germany