Official release: May 2021
by Luca Chierici
The presence in Milan of such a charismatic figure as Wilhelm Kempff in the last period of his career was limited to few but significant recitals, structured on the composers he loved most, first and foremost Beethoven and Schubert. It all happened within few months. The eighty-one years old pianist performed at La Scala on March 20th, 1978, playing three very challenging Sonatas by Schubert; later, on April 3rd, he played at the Serate Musicali (Bach, Beethoven and Schumann); then, on October 31st, he performed at the Società del Quartetto, playing four Sonatas by Beethoven. The final farewell happened on January 22nd, again at the Serate Musicali, where he played with violinist Thomas Goldschmidt, who was his grandchild/nephew, in the name of Beethoven.
The direct observation of these events, from a very close position, allowed me to appreciate some particulars which remained indelible in my memory. Kempff was aged, of course, but no more so than others among his colleagues in those years, such as Arrau or Serkin, to say nothing of a Rubinstein, who had performed two years earlier as a perfectly fit eighty-nine years old. Kempff, instead, was extremely thin, hollow-cheeked, with skinny hands, a slow and uncertain pace. And, most importantly, his gaze seemed to be already pointed to the other world, or at least to an ideal place where the musicians he was about to evoke could be found.
His sound was neither dry nor wood-like; it was full-bodied, capable of still rendering the fascination of those pages on which he had meditated throughout his life. The technical problems, which were not serious in general, became entirely irrelevant in comparison with the fascination of his timbre and the intensity of his phrasing. His Bach was timeless, his Schumann was essential and profound, his Beethoven was explored to the roots and brought to the limits of verbal expression in the conclusion of Sonata op. 109. At the end of the recital, even the Chopin of an elusive and enchanting Nocturne was narrated with peerless poetry, and an Impromptu by Schubert (which he announced in German, sounding almost threatening) flowed as pure sound and as an affable speech.
KEMPFF’S Historical Live Recording
by Chiara Bertoglio
Unanimously recognized as one of the greatest pianists of all times, Wilhelm Kempff (1895-1991) lived a long life, embroidered with music from his very first to his last years. This album therefore represents a unique opportunity for listening to some of the most iconic piano works in the performance of a genius of the piano.
Kempff was born in a family of musicians; in particular, his first musical experiences were doubtlessly due to his father’s influence. Wilhelm Kempff sr. was in fact a church musician with a prestigious appointment in the St. Nicholas Church in Potsdam, one of the German cities where music had always been practised at the highest possible levels. The child showed unmistakable signs of a precocious musical talent; already at the age of nine he was admitted to the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. This demonstrates that, by then, he already possessed a mature technique and musical understanding. At the Hochschule, he had the opportunity of studying not only piano (where he attended the courses of a legendary teacher, Karl Heinrich Barth), but also composition with another great professor, Robert Kahn. In fact, Kempff would never conform to the stereotype of the mere “piano virtuoso”: though his mastery of the piano was unequalled, his understanding of music derived from his comprehensive perspective on music and from his own experience as a composer.
At the age of 22, the young pianist showcased the results of his long education in an epoch-making recital in Berlin. Two of the works he performed on that occasion reveal his standing as a young artist with a fabulous technique: he played Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata (op. 106) as well as Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Paganini. Both compositions are among the most technically challenging of the whole piano repertoire, but, at the same time, both require a profound understanding of the musical structures and a powerful artistic personality. Both, moreover, belong in the great German repertoire: Kempff would always remain an apostle of the Austro-German musical tradition, even though he is also remembered for his enchanting interpretations of Chopin’s music.
From that moment, his life as an internationally famous concert pianist began, and his decades-long career would continue until a few years before his death. The year after his Berlin recital, he was invited to perform with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Artur Nikisch; he would remain one of the orchestra’s favourite soloists for more than sixty years.
At the age of 25, Kempff began another important professional partnership, with the recording label Deutsche Grammophon. To this artistic venture, we owe some of the most representative recordings of the twentieth century, particularly in the field of Beethoven interpretation: two series of the complete Piano Sonatas (one in mono and the other in stereo); two series of the complete Piano Concertos; the complete Violin Sonatas (with Yehudi Menuhin), the complete Cello Sonatas (with Pierre Fournier), and the Trios (with Henrik Szeryng and Pierre Fournier). Kempff liked to define himself as “a student of Beethoven’s students”, and, in fact, he can be considered as the legitimate heir of a tradition mounting back to the composer himself.
If Beethoven occupied pride of place in Kempff’s repertoire and in his musical perspective, other great composers of the Austro-German tradition were regularly performed and recorded by this pioneering artist. In particular, he actively and fundamentally contributed to the rediscovery and appreciation of Franz Schubert’s Piano Sonatas. Thanks to his efforts, to his recordings and to his unforgettable performances, the full artistic value of these immortal masterpieces was eventually brought to light, and they acquired a unique place in the piano repertoire.
Other performances which left an indelible mark in the history of interpretation were those Kempff gave of Mozart’s works (particularly the Piano Concertos), of Brahms’ masterpieces, and of Schumann’s piano music (which he also edited). In fact, Kempff tirelessly demonstrated his innate curiosity and his profound culture and competence. Far from being a piano-obsessed child prodigy, Kempff had studied also philosophy and music history, thus acquiring a complete cultural education and the capacity of penetrating the aesthetics of music profoundly. Moreover, as previously said, he not only performed, but also wrote many interesting musical works. Today, he is best remembered for his marvellous piano transcriptions of Bach’s organ works: they certainly bear witness to Kempff’s memories of the church music surrounding him in his childhood.
Kempff, however, was also the composer of original works, including Symphonies (one of them was premiered by legendary Wilhelm Furtwängler at the Gewandhaus), an opera and numerous works for solo piano.
One of his compositions, the Italian Suite, testifies to his deep love for the Italian Peninsula. Shortly after the Second World War, Kempff became a regular resident of Positano, near Naples, where also Sigismund Thalberg had lived in the preceding century. There, Kempff created a cultural centre, originally called “Casa Orfeo” (and inaugurated with an unforgettable joint performance given by Kempff and Alfred Cortot), and presently bearing the name of its founder. At the Orfeo Foundation, Kempff gave piano summer piano courses, mostly focusing on Beethoven performance, and attended by many pianists who later became the greatest artists of their generation. Among his former pupils are musicians such as Mitsuko Uchida, Idil Biret, Gerhard Oppitz, John O’Conor and Jörg Demus; some of them continued the tradition of the summer courses after Kempff’s death.
The pianist continued his astonishing career until very few years prior to his death; he was forced to abandon the concert stages due to Parkinson’s Disease, which limited his capability to perform in his last years. His many talents, not only in the musical field, are testified by his books: in 1981 he issued an autobiography, Was ich hörte, was ich sah: Reisebilder eines Pianisten, which recounts his long activity, but already thirty years earlier (1951) he had published another book of memories of his youthful years (Unter dem Zimbelstern: Jugenderinnerungen eines Pianisten). He died in Positano, a few years after his wife.
The programme recorded here offers a bird’s eye view on the composers and repertoires which constituted the core of the pianist’s artistry. It also includes some exquisite gems representing both his beautiful touch and his powerful musical temperament.
Two Sonatas by Beethoven bear witness to Kempff’s unique affinity with the German composer. The Sonata op. 27 no. 1, written in 1800-1, was titled Sonata quasi una fantasia by Beethoven; in fact, it does not conform to the conventions and stereotypes of the classical Sonata, and inaugurates a new era in the composer’s musical itinerary. The Sonata op. 109 was composed almost twenty years later (1819-20); both Sonatas illustrate, with a difference of two decades, Beethoven’s continuous exploration of the potential of this genre. Both works, in fact, bear witness to Beethoven’s daring experiments both inside and outside the formal structures he had inherited from earlier composers: for example, the four movements of Sonata op. 27 no. 1 are connected to each other with “attacca” indications, and the Theme with Variations of Sonata op. 109 is one of the most complex and fascinating itineraries to which Beethoven invites his listeners.
Just ten years after Beethoven’s op. 109, a young Chopin wrote the three Nocturnes op. 9. The third piece of this series, in an A-B-A form, opens as an Allegretto scherzando with a somewhat mixed affective connotation: irony and elegy are both found in the chromatic theme. Both are swept away by the section in the minor mode (Agitato), whose powerful personality is eventually overcome by the gentler opening theme.
Another of Kempff’s beloved composers is represented here by one of his most famous works, i.e. Franz Schubert’s Impromptu op. 90 no. 4. Similar to Chopin’s Nocturne, it is in the A-B-A form, and it also comprises a lighter outer section (A) framing a more dramatic inner Trio (B). The right hand’s garlands embellish the left hand’s simple cantabile tune, and build up the climax of section A; the darker mood of section B acquires an almost contemplative style in a prayerlike fashion.
The album is completed by yet another masterpiece of the piano literature, the majestic Kreisleriana op. 16 by Robert Schumann, dedicated to Chopin and written in 1838. This magnificent cycle is inspired by the figure of Kapellmeister Kreisler, the protagonist of a literary work by E. T. A. Hoffmann. Kreisler’s genius is represented in Schumann’s portrayal, including both fantastic outbursts, of an unforeseeable nature, and impassionate moments of lyricism.
Together, these works represent a sample of the immortal repertoire of 19th century pianism, as seen and as performed by one of the greatest geniuses of 20th century pianism.
Album Notes by Chiara Bertoglio
Franz Schubert: (b Vienna, 31 Jan 1797; d Vienna, 19 Nov 1828). Austrian composer. The only canonic Viennese composer native to Vienna, he made seminal contributions in the areas of orchestral music, chamber music, piano music and, most especially, the German lied. The richness and subtlety of his melodic and harmonic language, the originality of his accompaniments, his elevation of marginal genres and the enigmatic nature of his uneventful life have invited a wide range of readings of both man and music that remain among the most hotly debated in musical circles.
Frédéric Chopin: (b Żelazowa Wola, nr Warsaw, 1 March 1810; d Paris, 17 Oct 1849). Polish composer and pianist. He combined a gift for melody, an adventurous harmonic sense, an intuitive and inventive understanding of formal design and a brilliant piano technique in composing a major corpus of piano music. One of the leading 19th-century composers who began a career as a pianist, he abandoned concert life early; but his music represents the quintessence of the Romantic piano tradition and embodies more fully than any other composer’s the expressive and technical characteristics of the instrument.
Ludwig van Beethoven: (b Bonn, bap. 17 Dec 1770; d Vienna, 26 March 1827). German composer. His early achievements, as composer and performer, show him to be extending the Viennese Classical tradition that he had inherited from Mozart and Haydn. As personal affliction – deafness, and the inability to enter into happy personal relationships – loomed larger, he began to compose in an increasingly individual musical style, and at the end of his life he wrote his most sublime and profound works. From his success at combining tradition and exploration and personal expression, he came to be regarded as the dominant musical figure of the 19th century, and scarcely any significant composer since his time has escaped his influence or failed to acknowledge it. For the respect his works have commanded of musicians, and the popularity they have enjoyed among wider audiences, he is probably the most admired composer in the history of Western music.
Robert Schumann: (b Zwickau, Saxony, 8 June 1810; d Endenich, nr Bonn, 29 July 1856). German composer and music critic. While best remembered for his piano music and songs, and some of his symphonic and chamber works, Schumann made significant contributions to all the musical genres of his day and cultivated a number of new ones as well. His dual interest in music and literature led him to develop a historically informed music criticism and a compositional style deeply indebted to literary models. A leading exponent of musical Romanticism, he had a powerful impact on succeeding generations of European composers.