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Customer Reviews for: Wilhelm Kempff - Solo Piano Recordings [35-CD Set]

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 A fine tribute to a poet-philosopher of the keybo March 30, 2012
By T. Drake (South Euclid, OH) -- See All My Reviews
To the best of my knowledge, this 35-CD set includes all of Wilhelm Kempff’s stereo recordings of solo piano music made for Deutsche Grammophon, his main label, along with a scattering of mono recordings and Decca issues.

After Schnabel, Kempff, who studied with Karl Heinrich Barth, was the principal exponent of the German school of piano performance. (Indeed, Schnabel recommended Kempff in the event he would be unable to complete his own cycle of Beethoven Sonatas). Like Schnabel (and unlike many later exponents of that school) Kempff had a beautiful, individual sound. While he was generally faithful to the score, he did not get caught up in details and was not a purist (he occasionally eschewed repeats and doubled bass notes). In these respects, but few others, Kempff was similar to another Barth pupil: Arthur Rubinstein.

Kempff was primarily a pianist of poetry, introspection, and understanding. His technique was reliable, but he was not a virtuoso and never thundered. Kempff appeared to take Terence’s dictum to heart: Moderation In all things. Thus, faster movements are never rushed, slow movements are never dragged. This works especially well in Bach, Schubert, Mozart, and most of Beethoven – but less so in Chopin, Schumann, and Brahms. Kempff shied away from the more virtuosic Liszt works, but served the poetic ones well.

For those used to Glenn Gould’s Bach, Kempff performances will come as a shock. This is nowhere truer than in the Goldberg Variations that make up the first disc. Kempff never tries to make the piano sound like anything other than a piano, complete with liberal use of the sustaining pedal- and he omits most of the ornaments. Listeners will either love it or hate it – and while I find Kempff’s playing enchanting on its own terms, I found myself longing to hear Perahia’s more detailed recording. Also included here are several of the Preludes and Fugues from both books of the WTK. Kempff disliked Busoni’s Technicolor arrangements of the organ preludes and composed his own, more discreet versions.

There is one disc dedicated to Mozart, in which the pianist skillfully keeps the music on a small scale without resorting to the porcelain doll approach.

Kempff recorded two complete cycles of Beethoven’s Sonatas - mono and stereo - along with a nearly complete cycle on 78s. He’s most persuasive in the early Sonatas – where he captures the composer’s humor, and in the late works – where the structure emerges clearly. Certain “virtuoso” Sonatas, such as the Waldstein and Appassionata are let down by Kempff’s temperament – which was warm but never ran hot. This doesn’t seem to be an issue of technique, since the most difficult of all, the Hammerklavier, emerges with clarity and solidity.

For me, the high point of this set is Schubert. The complete Sonatas are here (a caveat, they do not include the abandoned movements), along with both sets of Impromptus, the three Klavierstucke, Moments Musicaux, and Wanderer Fantasy. The virtues of Kempff’s Schubert were in the lovely tone painting, understanding of structure, unforced poetry, and refusal to turn the composer’s later works into morose sarcophagi. Those virtues are what makes Kempff my favorite Schubert pianist.

To me, the weakest part of this set is Kempff’s playing of those staples of Romantic pianism: Chopin and Schumann. Some of those composers’ lighter works, such as Chopin’s Impromptus and Schumann’s Papillons, are copacetic to Kempff’s interpretations. But more dramatic pieces, including Chopin’s Second and Third Sonatas and Schumann’s C major Fantasy and Kreisleriana, fall completely flat. The liner notes try to rationalize Kempff’s tame approach and even turn it into a virtue. But very few will respond to the tame Chopin, where there are no canons buried in the flowers – or to the Schumann, which completely eschews the composer’s Florestan side. Likewise, the Brahms is a mixed bag, with lovely late pieces, but a bogged down Third Sonata.

The final disc includes a few 78rpm era recordings which demonstrate the continuity of Kempff’s approach over the decades, and Kempff speaking at various venues (in German).

The documentation does not specify whether these recordings were newly remastered (given the price point, I doubt it) but the sound quality is well above the early CD issues of the Beethoven and Schubert and is eminently listenable.

This box is a lovely and very reasonably priced tribute to one of the 20th Century’s greatest poet-philosophers of the piano.
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