Sunday, 26 May 2013

Review: Liszt - Piano Works - Wilhelm Kempff - 1974, DG

Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886)

Années de pèlerinage: 2ème année: Italie, S. 161
[1] 1. Sposalizio (7:39)
[2] 2. Il Penseroso (3:59)
[3] 3. Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa (2:51)
[4] 4. Sonetto del Petrarca No. 47 (5:54)
[5] 5. Sonetto del Petrarca No. 104 (5:31)
[6] 6. Sonetto del Petrarca No. 123 (6:23)

Venezia e Napoli, S. 162
(supplement to Années de Pelerinage, 2ème année: Italie, S. 161)
[7] 1. Gondoliera (5:24)

Deux Legendes, S. 175*
[8] No. 1: St. Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds (10:07)
[9] No. 2: St. Francis of Paola walking on the water (8:52)

Wilhelm Kempff, piano

*The original titles are in French. The beautiful painting on the cover is from an altarpiece by Bonaventura Berlinghieri (XIII century, perhaps) depicting, obviously, St Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds.

The usual Kempff: in class of his own; compelling.

The most unusual thing about Wilhelm Kempff is that there is, indeed, nothing usual about him. He is very much my kind of pianist – no rush, no banging, no cheap show-off, music always comes first – and it is not surprising that more or less all my encounters with his recordings have consistently range from delightful to unforgettable. Kempff's gentleness, some think, doesn't suit Beethoven's music, full of angst and passion, but I think his complete recordings of the sonatas and the concerti are some of the most satisfying in my admittedly limited listening experience. Kempff's Schumann I treasure even more, albeit with a few exceptions such as the C major Fantasie, and of Brahms' deceptively simple late opuses I have yet to hear a finer performances than Kempff's. As for the Schubert's sonatas and impromptus, though I have lots of affection for Bolet, Horowitz, Ciccolini or Joao Pires in certain pieces, for sheer quantity coupled with quality Kempff is my first choice, hugely preferable to Brendel.

So when I came to this CD – my first experience of Kempff on a Lisztian scale – I naturally had high expectations. Yet they were surpassed. It is a little difficult to believe that these recordings were made in 1974 and released in 1975, namely when Wilhelm Kempff was 79-80 years old. He had lost but little of his formidable technique and none of his magical ability to discover things that other pianists pass unnoticed.

The pieces here, indeed, are carefully chosen as not to require any pyrotechnics, but musicianship of a very high order all of them do require. And Kempff delivers splendidly. ''Sposalizio'' and ''Il Penseroso'' are as mystical and spooky, respectively, as anything, and without an ounce of exaggeration. ''Gondoliera'' demonstrates that Kempff still had very deft fingers, but this is something many pianists have; the peculiar rocking quality of the melody that makes you feel as you are lying in a gondola somewhere among the Venetian canals – now this is very rare, and Kempff has it. Similarly, he brings forward the jauntiness of ''Canzonetta'' so well that Salvator Rossa himself would probably have been mightily pleased. Too bad Kempff didn't record at least the ''Canzone'' from Venezia e Napoli; surely it was up to his fingers even in those late years and I am sure he would have done marvellous things with that ominous left hand and that constant tremolo in the right one that so enraged Louis Kentner (but that's another story).

By far the most idiosyncratic – to be read ''controversial'' – performances are the Petrarch Sonnets. The famous 104th is pretty fast – one of the fastest on record, actually (5:31) – and I shudder to think what will happen today with some innocent youth who ventures to offer similar performance at a piano competition. He'll probably be ostracized and his future career will be impossible. The other two sonnets are not quite so strange, but they are very different than anything you are likely to hear in the concert hall today, or on record for that matter. But before judging Kempff too harshly, we should remember that this man was born as early as 1895 and his formative years as an artist happened to be in times vastly different than our own. That said, the rather fast tempi and weird accents work surprisingly well in his hands. They remind me that Petrarch's sonnets are full-blooded pieces of poetry, torn asunder by love passions almost violent in nature. Though Kempff's recordings certainly don't erase memories of Bolet's extraordinarily poetic renditions, they are singularly convincing alternatives.

For me the greatest performances on the disc are the two Legendes, some of Liszt's most explicitly programmatic and most original works. Kempff evokes the singing of birds in the First Legende as few others do, suavely and with great subtlety. He builds the transition after the introduction with awesome power, pretty much like Arcadi Volodos in his recent recording for Sony. Only in the ''storm'' of the Second Legende does Kempff's advanced age show but slightly and insignificantly; it's a powerful performance with a superb sensitivity to the haunting main theme. As a set, the two Legendes easily withstand competition with far more virtuoso performances such as those of Howard or Ciccolini – who probably were twice younger when they recorded them.

The sound is surprisingly fine for DG. Though in no way exceptional, it is way better than the brittle stuff they provided for Lazar Berman when he recorded the complete cycle a few years later. The dynamic range here is not particularly impressive, but neither do the pieces require it, nor were great dynamic contrasts Kempff's cup of tea anyway. Still, the sonority of the piano is well captured, with beautifully deep bass and only slight harshness in the great climax of the Second Legende.

The booklet contains an appallingly purple essay by Jeremy Siepmann who describes Kempff's playing with a prose more flowery than Gibbon's in The Decline and Fall. Very much unlike Gibbon's, however, Siepmann's prose hardly makes any sense at all. Amidst lots of nonsense, he has little of any importance to say (such as reminding us that Kempff was also a prolific composer and fine organist) and he makes at least one stupendous historical mistake. Liszt spent that winter in Rome with his mistress, Marie d'Agoult, when some of the works on this disc were composed (at least their first versions) in 1839, that is not after the end of his stupefying virtuoso career but before that. Liszt's Glanzzeit did not start in the earnest until 1841.

Just grab the CD and enjoy piano playing of rare eloquence. The total timing is dismayingly short (less than 60 minutes) but with such artistry at such price this is of no consequence whatsoever.

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