courtesy of Naxos of America
The Wikipedia page for the pianist Wilhelm Kempff describes him as “one of the chief exponents of the Germanic tradition during the 20th century and one of the greatest pianists of all time.” It is certainly safe to say that, among those who took listening to classical music seriously, Kempff dominated the twentieth century. He was born on November 25, 1895 and died at the age of 95 on May 23, 1991. He was one of the first pianists to record the complete sonatas of Franz Schubert; and his recordings of Schubert and Ludwig van Beethoven distinguished him as one of Deutsche Grammophon (DG) “prime assets.”
However, while we know Kempff today primarily through CD reissues of technologically advanced DG recordings made during the second half of the twentieth century, he reputation as a recorded artist had already been established prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. For about two years Appian Publications & Recordings (APR) has been remastering 78 RPM recordings that Kempff made between 1925 and 1943 (i.e. both before and during the war). All of these recordings are performances of Beethoven, both concertos and sonatas (with a few short pieces added as “fillers”).
Neither of these collections is complete. Opus 19 in B-flat major is missing from the two-CD concerto collection (released in August of 2016), meaning that only four of the concertos are included. Furthermore, the recording of Opus 15 in C major is so early (September 1925) that the production team never bothered to make note of who was conducting the Berlin State Opera Orchestra. Fortunately, the conductor is known for the remaining three concertos, Paul van Kempen for Opus 37 in C minor and Opus 58 in G major and Peter Raabe for Opus 73 in E-flat major.
Similarly, only 24 of the 32 sonatas have been accounted for in the two APR albums that have been released. The full title of the earlier of these, also consisting of two CDs, is The late Beethoven sonatas: Pre-war 78-rpm recordings 1925–1936. For those who want to be strict about their Beethoven history, the earliest two sonatas in the collection, Opus 78 in F-sharp major (1809) and Opus 81a (“Les adieux”) in E-flat major (1810), would probably be categorized among the so-called “middle period” string quartets. However, there is a gap of about four years before the “final six,” all of which certainly deserve to be classified as “late.”
Last month APR released its second sonata album, this one consisting of four-CDs and entitled Beethoven: The complete wartime piano sonata recordings. The latest sonata in this collection is Opus 57 (“Appassionata”) in F minor; and the earliest is the second of the Opus 2 sonatas in A major. In this case it is clear that the entire set is firmly ensconced in “early” and “middle” periods.
Writing as one who came to know Kempff through the “higher fidelity” post-war DG albums, I was impressed with how much one could glean from these early recordings. Granted, the sound quality is likely to drive “audiophiliacs” (like my favorite bête noire, Steve Guttenberg) up the wall; but those more interested in listening to the music, rather than critiquing the sound quality, will be highly rewarded. I was particularly drawn to how Kempff composed his own cadenzas for the piano concertos. At a time when just about anyone in a concert audience would associate Beethoven with Kaspar von Zumbusch’s scowling monument, Kempff seemed determined to make sure his listeners both recognized and enjoyed the composer’s capacity for wit. This shows up not only in the cadenzas themselves but also in how Kempff works with his conductor to find just the right way to lend a light touch to the phrasing. Those who have followed my enthusiastic waxing over the recordings of Sviatoslav Richter will find a delightfully alternative point of view in Kempff.
Nevertheless, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that, over the course of all of the eight CDs available, some of the recording sessions are just not up to the quality of others. This often has an impact on Kempff’s execution; and I suspect that there are a generous number of moments that he would have preferred to be kept “in the can,” rather than pressed on recordings that would then be sold. As one who is particularly attuned to the details of the “late” sonatas, I have to say that I was most aware of such flaws in that particular collection. Even so, when taken as a whole, these are recordings that I am likely to revisit with as much frequency as I am already devoting to my treasured Richter recordings. After all, a composer like Beethoven does not deserve listening from only a single “point of view!”