Wilhelm Kempff was awarded two scholarships to the Berlin Hochschule für Musik at the age of nine: one to study piano with Heinrich Barth, and another to study composition with Brahms’s close friend and disciple Robert Kahn, both of whom had previously taught Artur Rubinstein. In 1917, Kempff gave his first major recital, consisting of predominantly major works, including Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” and Brahms’s “Variations on a Theme of Paganini”. Kempff toured extensively during his career yet did not make his first London appearance until 1951, and his first in New York in 1964 at the ages of fifty-five and sixty-nine respectively. He gave his last public performance in Paris in 1981, and then retired for health reasons (Parkinson’s Disease).
Wilhelm Kempff recorded over a period of some sixty years, yet this set of his acoustic recordings is unique: this is the first time that these early acoustic recordings have been assembled and the only group of Kempff recordings that have never been reissued. Additionally, Kempff establishes himself as the first pianist in history to place fully a quarter of the Beethoven sonatas on disc. The final Kempff DG/Polydor acoustic recording is arguably the most historically significant, since his Beethoven First, recorded with the Berlin State Opera Orchestra in September of 1925, stands as the first commercial release of one of the staples of the modern repertoire. Notes by Stephen Siek (pianist, musicologist, piano historian, and author of England’s Piano Sage: The Life and Teachings of Tobias Matthay) round out this historically important and beautifully lyric set.
CD 1 (70:20)
|1.||Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp, No. 3 from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1||3:11|
|January 1923; 1094 as (65699) [B 27001]|
|2.||Prelude and Fugue in D, No. 5 from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1||3:07|
|January 1923; 1093½ as (65699) [B 27000]|
|3.||Presto, Third Movement from Italian Concerto in F, BWV 971||3:14|
|January 1923; 1095 as (65700) [B 27002]|
|4.||Sinfonia from Cantata BWV 29||3:50|
|January 1923; 1096½ as (65700) [B 27003]|
|5.||Sicilienne from Sonata for Flute and Klavier in E-flat, BWV 1031||3:50|
|July 1924; 1748½ as (66045) [B 27071]|
|6.||Gavotte from IPHIGÉNIE EN AULIDE*||3:19|
|July 1924; 1747 as (66045) [B 27070]|
|Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13, “Pathétique”|
|July 1924; 1712/15 as (66176/77) [B 27090/93]|
IGrave – Allegro di molto e con brio
|4:10||Sonata No. 12 in A-flat, Op. 26|
|July 1924; 1737½ as, 1738 as, 1739 as, 1740 as, 1741 as, 1742 as (66041/43) [B 27062/67]|
IAndante con variazioni
IIScherzo. Allegro molto
IIIMarcia funebre sulla morte d’un eroe. Maestoso andante
|2:45||Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 2, “Moonlight”|
|July 1924; 1700 as, 1701 as, 1706 as, 1707½ as (66172/73) [B 27082/85]|
CD 2 (79:38)
|1.||Bagatelle in C, Op. 33, No. 5||2:29|
|January 1923; 2062 ar (62400) [B 7000]|
|2.||Rondo in G, Op. 51, No. 2||8:23|
|July 1924; 1721/22 as (66040) [B 27060/61]||Sonata No. 21 in C, Op. 53, “Waldstein”|
|July 1924; 1694½ as, 1695 as, 1696 as, 1697½ as, 1698½ as, 1699½ as (66036/38) [B 27052/57]|
IAllegro con brio
IIIntroduzione. Adagio molto
IIIRondo. Allegretto moderato – Prestissimo
|9:46||Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57, “Appassionata”|
|July 1924; 1688½ as, 1689 as, 1690 as, 1691 as, 1692½ as, 1693½ as (66033/35) [B 27046/51]|
IIAndante con moto
IIIAllegro ma non troppo – Presto
|5:43||Sonata No. 26 in E-flat, Op. 81a, “Les Adieux”|
|July 1924; 1708/11 as (66174 and 65175) [B27086/89]|
|4:12||Sonata No. 27 in E Minor, Op. 90|
|July 1924; 3371/72 ar and 1719/20 as (62491 and 66039) [B 7012/13 and B 27058/59]|
IMit Lebhaftigkeit und durchaus mit Empfindung und Ausdruck
IINicht zu geschwind und sehr singbar vorgetragen
CD 3 (67:27)
|Sonata No. 28 in A, Op. 101|
|July 1924; 1723½ as, 1724½ as, 1725½ as, 1726½ as (66178/79) [B 27094/97]|
|1.||I Etwas lebhaft, und mit der innigsten Empfindung (Allegretto ma non troppo)||3:32|
IILebhaft, marschmäßig (Vivace alla Marcia)
IIILangsam und sehnsuchtsvoll (Adagio ma non troppo, con affetto)
IVGeschwind, doch nicht zu sehr und mit Entschlossenheit (Allegro)
|5.||Ecossaises in E-flat, WoO 86||2:02|
|January 1923; 2064 ar (62400) [B 7001]||Concerto No. 1 in C, Op. 15|
|with the Berlin State Opera Orchestra, conductor unidentified|
|March 1925; 822½ az, 823½ az, 824½ az, 825½ az, 828 az, 829 az, 830½ az, 831½ az (69815/18) [B 20613/20]|
IAllegro con brio
IIIRondo. Allegro scherzando
|9.||Scherzo in E Minor, Op. 16, No. 2||2:03|
|July 1924; 1743½ as (66044) [B 27068]|
|10.||Song Without Words, Op. 102, No. 5||1:08|
|July 1924; 1746 as (66044) [B27069]|
|11.||Song Without Words, Op. 102, No. 6||2:35|
|July 1924; 1746 as (66044) [B27069]|
|12.||Toccata in C, Op. 7||4:34|
|July 1924; 1744 as (66180) [B 27098]|
|13.||Rhapsody in E-flat, Op. 119, No. 4||4:23|
|July 1924; 1745½ as (66180) [B27099]|
Producers: Ward Marston and Scott Kessler
Audio Conservation: Ward Marston and J. Richard Harris
Photos: Gregor Benko
Booklet Coordinator: Mark S. Stehle
Booklet Design: Takeshi Takahashi
Booklet Notes: Stephen Siek
This project is fully sponsored by Tito and Michael Autrey
Marston would like to thank Donald Manildi, Curator of the International Piano Archives at the University of Maryland, for providing some original discs.
Marston would like to thank Karsten Lehl and Axel Weggen, for providing digital transfers of several original discs.
Marston would like to thank Gregor Benko and Donald Manildi for their editorial guidance.
Marston would like to thank Christian Zwarg for providing important discographic information.
Stephen Siek, author of our essay, would like to thank Max Brown and Don Manildi of the International Piano Archives at the University of Maryland; Mike Gray, creator and editor of A Classical Discography; Alan Newcombe of Deutsche Grammophon; and Mike Spring of Appian Publications and Recordings.
Marston is grateful to the Estate of John Stratton (Stephen Clarke, Executor) for its continuing support.
WILHELM KEMPFF: THE EARLY YEARS
©2021 Stephen Siek
Within the span of a few weeks, the spring of 1991 saw the loss of three pianistic legends when Rudolf Serkin passed on May 8th, Wilhelm Kempff on May 23rd, and Claudio Arrau on June 9th. All had immensely lengthy careers, and since they had all come to prominence shortly after World War I, many observed that their passing signaled the end of an era—an era when “Germanic” pianism was still seen as the epicenter of the pianist’s universe. Arrau and Kempff, whose formative years were spent in Berlin, and Serkin, who was trained in Vienna, had long been considered among the most luminous exponents of Germanic traditions, and perhaps not surprisingly, all were often praised for the insights they brought to Beethoven and the other Austro-German masters.
Nonetheless, many commentators cited essential differences in their approach, and some of these seemed relatively easy to summarize. Writing in the June 16th edition of the New York Times, Donal Henahan observed that Serkin “seemed to hurl himself at a Beethoven sonata with a heady abandon that dramatized the composer’s own heroic vision of himself,” while Arrau exhibited “great virtuosity and insight but also … a well-tailored refinement that prompted critics early in his career to characterize his style as ‘aristocratic,’ a somewhat misleading label that stuck with him.”
But he found Kempff more elusive to classify, noting that for decades, both Serkin and Arrau had performed so frequently in America that “audiences came to know and love their every tic of interpretation and style.” By contrast, Kempff was sixty-nine when he made his New York debut, and his American notices were not always positive. And while he had performed intermittently in Britain during the 1930s, it was mostly as a chamber musician, since he delayed his first London recital till October of 1951, when he was fifty-five. In subsequent years, the English press was often unforgiving, even vituperative, as on October 19th, 1959, when a critic for The Times opened his review of the pianist’s Festival Hall concert with a scathing indictment:
There are so many beautiful and poetic things, perfectly judged, and so many ugly and cavalier and unmusical ones in Mr. Wilhelm Kempff’s piano playing that his every performance revives the riddle: is he an unmusical pianist with a clever ear and boundless conceit, or a real musician who does not sufficiently care about the music that he plays?
However, reviews of his myriad studio sessions were rarely negative on either side of the Atlantic, and in a recording career that spanned some sixty years, scores of critics and connoisseurs were drawn to an artistry that always seemed to arouse the emotions as much as the intellect. Henahan even suggested that his less frequent appearances on American soil lent an “aura of mystery” to his persona, adding that “Absence, as in other forms of love, makes the heart grow fonder.” He finally chose “nobility” as the quality most descriptive of Kempff’s art, and that theme was expanded in the May 2004 Gramophone article by British critic Stephen Plaistow:
His Beethoven was magisterial but human—not god-like. He saw himself as the medium of the music’s transmission … He could grade line and sound over wondrously long spans, as if bar-lines didn’t exist, and lay out a slow movement as if painting a canvas, inviting us into a space and making us aware of the highs and lows, the movement, the shadows and the quality of the light. … It is, I think, essentially an intimate, lyrical scale of performance, though far from a circumscribed one. … He was a master at making his tone and cantabile carry even at the softest dynamic.
Though the cultural heritage he shared with Serkin and Arrau was unmistakable, Kempff also bore a close kinship with another well-known twentieth-century pianist, for they pursued extended studies with the same teacher. But the metaphoric descriptions once invoked to capture the German pianist’s artistry seemed absurdly ill-suited to describe the Polish-born Arthur Rubinstein—for in temperament and even deportment, the two men were polar opposites. Nonetheless, their earliest backgrounds shared some striking similarities.
At the age of ten, Rubinstein—eight years Kempff’s senior—had been brought to Berlin from his native Łódz´ to audition for Joseph Joachim, the iconic director of the Hochschule für ausübende Tonkunst, who was so impressed that he immediately placed him with Heinrich Barth (1847–1922). Barth was a respected teacher at the Hochschule who had once been a pupil of Bülow and Tausig, both of whom in turn, had been devoted students of Liszt. But he never seemed to share Liszt’s enthusiasm for newer music, and in fact he seemed so mired in reactionary, Germanic traditions that the young Rubinstein complained repeatedly to anyone who would listen. Barth even refused to teach Chopin, except for some occasional Etudes that were studied purely as mechanical exercises, and when he discovered that his pupil was growing overly fond of Classical plays and poetry, he fired his tutor, lest such “unnecessary” interests interfere with the youth’s daily keyboard regimen.
Their relationship was even contentious, but it lasted for several years, in part due to the fact that Rubinstein was utterly seduced by his surroundings. By 1900, he had just entered his teens, but he already sensed that he was enveloped in the “musical epicenter” of the universe:
The capital of Germany was fast becoming the world’s most important center for musicians who wanted to be heard and judged. … I heard Eugen d’Albert play Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto with a nobility and tenderness which has remained in my mind as the model performance of this work. Ferruccio Busoni, with his handsome, pale, Christ-like face, and his diabolical technical prowess, was by far the most interesting pianist alive.
And very soon, the young Wilhelm Kempff was to embrace the same surroundings—which he found equally enticing.
The Kempff family hailed from Jüterbog, a town of about 13,000, some forty miles southwest of Berlin, where they had lived for generations. Kempff’s paternal grandfather, Friedrich, had long been Kantor and organist at the Church of St. Nikolaus, and by Royal appointment, his son, thirty-three-year-old Wilhelm (Sr.), succeeded him in that position in 1899. By then, Wilhelm and his wife, Henriette, had two sons, Georg, aged six, and (Friedrich) Wilhelm, aged four, so in the same year he relocated them to the nearby Berlin suburb of Potsdam, which—as the nerve center of the Prussian government—then offered some of the richest cultural and educational opportunities in Europe.
But though Lutheran church music seemed ingrained into the family’s DNA—Georg even later became the director of church music at the University of Erlangen—the Kempffs were thoroughly schooled in secular styles and traditions. When he was as young as four, Friedrich Wilhelm recalled hearing his father practicing Mozart’s Piano Sonata in G, K. 283, and within days he was delivering an adequate representation of its opening bars, albeit by rote. He even began composing—the genesis of a lifelong obsession—and like the young Mozart, his earliest efforts were notated by his father. As their lessons became more systematic, the elder Kempff was soon laying the groundwork for his son’s future pursuit of both the organ and the piano, instruments which he treasured for the rest of his life, though the piano was always his most cherished confidante.
The May 1st, 1903, issue of Klavier-Lehrer (The Piano Teacher), a Berlin-based journal once widely read by pianists and teachers, acknowledged the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Potsdam Music Institute founded by the celebrated Ida Schmidt-Schlesicke—noting that she still retained the same “Frische und Thatkraft” (freshness and energy) as when she had first begun her lengthy career. By this time, Wilhelm Sr. had entrusted his son to her care, and her seven-year-old pupil displayed such remarkable gifts that she immediately prodded him to learn both books of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. She worked in close collaboration with the elder Kempff, since such an extraordinary accomplishment was meant to place young Wilhelm in the front ranks when it came time for him to audition for Joachim’s Hochschule—part of his father’s masterplan.
Two years later he played for conductor Georg Schumann, then Director of the Sing-Akademie zu Berlin, who was duly impressed. As unlikely as it sounds, the story is often told that by then, the nine-year-old Wilhelm had memorized the entire Well-Tempered Clavier, and that he could transpose any of its preludes and fugues at will, but whatever his actual abilities, Schumann immediately recommended him to Joachim. He was then awarded two scholarships to the Hochschule, one to study piano with Barth, and another to study composition with Brahms’s close friend and disciple Robert Kahn (who just a few years earlier had also taught Rubinstein).
Kempff’s description of his piano teacher is consistent with Rubinstein’s in nearly every respect, and years later, he reported to German critic Jürgen Meyer-Josten that Barth was demanding to the point of being dictatorial: “He watched over a whole regiment of young pianists. He was, as we would say, a Prussian through and through, even in his appearance. He used to say: ‘Boy, what I cannot give you must come from heaven.’” Nonetheless, Barth no doubt recognized the youth’s prodigious abilities, for in the autumn of 1907, two years after their studies began, he oversaw the eleven-year-old’s first solo recital in the famed Palais Barberini, Potsdam’s premier concert venue. As the story goes, after performing the entire “48,” the youngster further astonished those in attendance by requesting a theme from an audience member, and when none was forthcoming, he simply improvised variations on tones generated by the auto horn belonging to Prince Eitel Friedrich, the twenty-four-year-old son of Wilhelm II.
But in a scene eerily reminiscent of Rubinstein’s experiences, Barth later became so obsessed with his pupil that when Kempff turned fifteen, he demanded he withdraw from all his academic studies at Potsdam’s Viktoria Gymnasium, accompanied by the stern admonition, “Boy, you will never become a true pianist if you do not concentrate, in these vital years, on a real, purely technical education.” This immediately brought him into conflict with Wilhelm Sr., who had already decreed that his son was to obtain a thorough grounding in the liberal arts. At one point, Kempff feared that his father and teacher might actually come to blows, for Barth even threatened, “If you are not willing, then I will use force.” Whatever he may have meant by this, Rubinstein recalled that “Professor Barth was a formidable personality. He was more than six feet tall and heavily built, but still quite quick on his feet. … his gold-rimmed glasses gave him a look of uncompromising severity.” But the senior Kempff held his ground:
Father was by no means terrified. He knew very well, after all, what the task is of the fully educated musician, who is an instrumentalist and a composer and a conductor—for whom a good general education would be barely adequate. It was characteristic of my father, the practical church musician, that all the objections of the Erlkönig bounced right off him.
Nonetheless, the breach was so pronounced that Barth suddenly stopped teaching his prize pupil, and by Kempff’s own account, he had no piano lessons at all between the ages of fifteen and eighteen. He did however continue his academic studies in earnest, graduating with great distinction, and he viewed what he later termed his “Long Absence” as highly beneficial: “Homer, Aeschylus and Euripides guaranteed that I did not utterly renounce the piano but led me to discover my creative faculties at the time. Then I became obsessed in my real studies, a true obsession with the piano.” Indeed, when he next played for Barth, which he did for a time while simultaneously pursuing studies in philosophy and music history at the University of Berlin, his former teacher was astounded that he was sounding like a finished artist.
No doubt his newfound polish and refinement were due, at least in part, to the heightened exposure he had received—at his father’s urging—to the two personalities Rubinstein had once idolized. In fact, a previously unimagined aesthetic realm opened for him when—in a single evening—he heard d’Albert play Beethoven’s “Emperor” and Liszt’s E-flat Concerto:
This was no mere piano playing, but … a whole new world, a world built of tones. Through this experience I had been given the gift of a new relationship with my instrument. In all the family of keyboard instruments there was none that offered the full range from thundering fortissimo to the lightest breath of the Aeolian harp, and I saw anew that the piano had a special relationship to these gradations of tone, and I came to appreciate the importance of great dynamic contrast.
D’Albert later told him that a pianist’s technique must “be joined with the soul and fused into an inseparable union,” and he also had protracted sessions with Busoni, whom he described as “a musical Leonardo.” He remembered Busoni advising him against improvising excessively because “it harmed the pianist’s interpretive powers,” and they also had many discussions about the master’s Bach transcriptions—those virtuosic pianistic essays so often derided by modern purists. But the young Kempff found them captivating, and he was transfixed by Busoni’s effortless demonstration of the “many manuals” possible to the piano when an artist understands the instrument’s coloring potential. Years later, he admitted, “I am even such a heretic that I believe that most of Bach’s chorale preludes sound better on our contemporary piano than they do on the organ.” Perhaps not surprisingly, Kempff soon employed his considerable training to create his own transcriptions of selected Bach works, two of which were recorded acoustically and appear in this collection.
In 1916, the twenty-year-old pianist completed his Hochschule studies with distinction, and the following year he made his formal debut at the Berlin Sing-Akademie. Although this time he received no inspiration from auto horns, he overwhelmed his audience by dispatching Beethoven’s mammoth “Hammerklavier” sonata along with both books of the Brahms Paganini variations, and the following year, his performance of the Beethoven Fourth with Arthur Nikisch and the Berlin Philharmonic met with universal acclaim. But even by 1920, conditions remained dire in war-torn Germany, so he continued to rely on church positions to make ends meet. For over a decade (over Barth’s repeated objections), his father had deputized him to play services at the family church in Jüterbog, and in the process he had been building a substantial corpus of organ repertoire. After graduation, Kempff also began touring with the famed Berlin State Cathedral Boys’ Choir, and late in 1918 when they made their first post-War appearance in Sweden, he even soloed primarily as an organist.
ENRICHING A NASCENT INDUSTRY
In July of 1914, the Leipzig-based Polyphon Musikwerke company expanded from manufacturing phonographs to producing records by founding a new subsidiary—Polydor—and three years later it jumpstarted its production quotas by purchasing the Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft plant from the German government. Shortly after war began in August 1914, German assets had been confiscated in Britain, so in retaliation, the Germans sequestered all British property inside its borders until it could be sold. Before then, DGG had simply been the German wing of the British Gramophone Company Ltd., but in April of 1917, company officials severed all ties to Britain by totally reorganizing DGG, and the following September they issued a new catalogue with a roster that included major artists such as Lotte Lehmann. But for the next several years the corporate intricacies could still be confusing, since the earliest catalogues also contained re-pressings of popular Gramophone recordings by famous artists—including pianists such as Wilhelm Backhaus, “Professor” Alfred Grünfeld, d’Albert, and Paderewski—and some modern detective work is often required to establish the year in which these discs were actually made. In addition, DG sought to retain Gramophone’s “His Master’s Voice” trademark (altering the caption to “Die Stimme seines Herrn”), but Gramophone sued to restrict its use to Germany, so that by the early 1920s all DG recordings sold abroad were required to bear the Polydor label—now with a new logo absent the iconic Nipper and his gramophone.
Initially, Polydor exports were minimal, but they soon began to grow exponentially. At present, American discographer Michael Gray has the most extensive classical music catalogue (www.Classical-Discography.org), and although his Polydor listings do not include all the DG recordings marketed inside Germany, they still provide a valuable indication of commercial trends in the nascent industry. His catalogue lists only nine Polydor selections from 1919—the earliest year for which the label is given entries—and the repertoire leans heavily toward popular operatic selections. For example, baritone Nicolaus Schwarz recorded “Wie Todesahnung … O du mein holder Abendstern” from Tannhäuser, as well as Verdi’s “Eri tu” (in German) from Un ballo in Maschera, while the twenty-nine-year-old Fritz Busch—who had recently been appointed conductor of the Stuttgart Opera—set down the overture to Le nozze di Figaro. Over the next several years, while the label’s earliest releases were still vocally dominated, a few well-known shorter orchestral classics rounded out its catalogue, no doubt reflecting the tastes of its burgeoning audience.
Gray records thirty-eight Polydor entries by 1920, with a catalogue now sporting—in addition to Lotte Lehmann—a veritable Who’s Who of German operatic talent, including Theodor Scheidl, Elisabeth Schumann, and the forty-one-year-old Aline Sanden, whose four recordings from Carmen reflected the role for which she was then most famous. Over the next year, business was undoubtedly good, for Gray’s catalogue reports a remarkable growth to 174 entries, with a roster now even boasting Nikisch and the Berlin Philharmonic. Nonetheless, singers continued to dominate the company’s output, as was the case a year later in 1922, for which the Gray catalogue lists 204 entries. But for the first time, Polydor’s roster also included two piano soloists, both performing Beethoven: the twenty-seven-year-old Günther Homann who rendered the composer’s G Major Sonata from Op. 49, and the twenty-six-year-old Wilhelm Kempff, who offered a C Major Bagatelle and the well-known Six Ecossaises in E-flat. To be sure, both discs featured what could be described as lighter Beethoven, but in Kempff’s case, the recording must have sold well, because within a year, DG hired him to record four additional sides, all by Bach.
But while no one disputes that the Beethoven was his first recording, some controversy exists concerning its date, since modern discographers are faced with several challenges when cataloguing titles from Deutsche Grammophon’s acoustic (pre-microphone) period. In fact, a reliable modern chronology may well be impossible due to the losses inflicted on Germany by Allied bombing raids in 1943, the worst of which began in November when the RAF launched the Battle of Berlin—a campaign so intense that untold numbers of DG documents and master discs were among the collateral damage. The matter is further clouded by the fact that Kempff told many that he made his first recording in 1920, but while this is possible, that disc may not have been released, and any substantiating documentation is now lost. Some sources have even dated his first Beethoven entry as early as 1919, but Gray relied on matrix numbers to arrive at a fall 1922 timeframe, so his dating seems entirely reasonable. He also reports that the four Bach selections which followed were set down between July and August of 1923, and that the largest array of Kempff acoustics (fifteen separate titles) was recorded in the spring of 1924, including eight complete Beethoven Sonatas, which form the earliest entries in the pianist’s highly venerated documentation of these masterpieces. The final Kempff DG/Polydor using acoustic technology is arguably the most historically significant, since his Beethoven First, recorded with the Berlin State Opera Orchestra in September of 1925, stands as the first commercial release of one of the staples of the modern repertoire.
Perhaps surprisingly, for an artist often best remembered for his warmth and poetic insights, these early recordings reveal a young firebrand, a technical marvel often capable of stunning, extroverted virtuosity, but virtuosity always governed by a sensitive lyricism. That sensitivity is apparent even in his first release—which was also his shortest—for when the studio ambiance is subtracted, the Bagatelle and the Ecossaises together tally to only four minutes and nineteen seconds of actual music. The brevity suggests a minimal commitment from DG executives, who may even have viewed Kempff’s first studio outing as something of an “audition.” No doubt he often tossed off such miniatures as encores, but these performances do far more than merely suggest potential, for after improvising a raucous four-bar introduction, he transforms the well-worn Ecossaises into a powerful, rustic monument, while his Bagatelle both dazzles and enchants. But as always, his technical feats are more likely to move than astound, since the effortless fluidity of his passage work—often rendered at will at pianissimo levels—created ethereal sounds that were faithfully captured—perhaps—by Deutsche Grammophon’s marvelous engineer Paul Goile, who frequently worked with Kempff.
Whatever the actual sales figures, his inaugural effort was probably seen as a success, for about eight months later Deutsche Grammophon let him record Bach, repertoire that seems likely to have been of his own choosing, especially since the Well-Tempered Clavier was already one of his oldest friends. He chose the C-sharp Major and the D Major Preludes and Fugues from Book I, and though both are rendered in a highly “pianistic” fashion, they are never over-pedaled, and in fact the translucent clarity of his rapid pianissimo passages is one of the first qualities that catches the ear. In the C-sharp Prelude, he seems to touch the pedal lightly to aid resonance at bar sixty-three, but nothing in the texture is ever permitted to blur, not even in the Fugue, which is delivered at such breakneck speed that the performance is over in under two minutes. But the ear accepts such contrapuntal quickness because the melodic purpose in each voice is so pronounced that the shapes become beguiling.
The D Major Prelude does not sound “pianistic” so much as warmly vocal, if one can imagine a soprano, then an alto, and then a tenor with the extraordinary dexterity to sound every tone with impeccable clarity at a presto tempo. At bar twenty, where Bach transposes his complex theme to G, Kempff employs the same subito piano so well known to devotees of Edwin Fischer’s landmark HMV recording, but since Kempff’s version appeared nine years earlier, one wonders which pianist—if either—might have originated this compelling effect. Mirroring the customary freedom of his era, he ends the prelude with a few dramatic flourishes, such as an octave bass doubling at bar thirty-three complemented by elaborate ornamentation at the final cadence—and while some modernists might object, others may be profoundly moved. Perhaps not surprisingly, his Fugue portrays the grandeur of a Baroque organ, inestimably aided by the startling pianissimos that seem to materialize out of nowhere, suggesting Busoni’s “many manuals.”
The companion disc to the early Bach set was even less “authentic,” for Kempff’s transcription of the Sinfonia from Cantata 29: Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir, is pianistically overpowering. The thematic material may be more familiar to pianophiles from Rachmaninoff’s 1933 transcription (taken up a tone) of the Prelude to the Violin Partita in E, BWV 1006.1, since Bach actually reworked these themes several times for different instruments and contexts, but Kempff’s version quite obviously suggests the grandeur of a pipe organ complemented by trumpets and orchestra. Nonetheless, every voice and timbre speak with majestic clarity, and the sincerity of his execution is always engrossing. Unfortunately, the A side preserved only the third movement from the Italian Concerto, since given the limited space then available on 78 rpm discs, most labels were wary of issuing longer works in their entirety, and companies frequently wound up tantalizing, rather than satiating their audiences. In Kempff’s hands, the Concerto’s finale is a breathless romp, though arguably it is slightly marred near the beginning by his determination to maintain a presto tempo above all else. Still, it is filled with miraculous moments, enhanced by his mastery of “terracing,” which conveys the illusion of multiple ensembles throughout.
Another Bach transcription appeared about eight months later when he set down his own ethereal rendering of the “Siciliano” (second movement) from the E-flat Flute Sonata, BWV 1031. One of the greatest challenges for any pianist is creating the illusion of sustained sound even though the instrument’s tone inevitably decays as soon as it appears, and few seem to have mastered this feat so well as Kempff, for his lyricism always captivates. Moreover, though acousticians will also insist that the piano is a percussion instrument, the warmth of a sound lacking all traces of brittleness often seems to contravene such wisdom. At the same time, he recorded Brahms’s version of the Gavotte from Act II of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide, a transcription the composer undertook as a favor to his friend Clara Schumann. Though the thick Brahmsian octaves seem to contradict the lyricism Gluck demands, they present no challenge to Kempff, and in the parallel minor section, his pedal effects are superb, simultaneously simulating a flute-like lyricism against pizzicato string accompaniment.
Two separate discs featuring three Romantic composers are also a part of Kempff’s acoustic legacy, and Mendelssohn’s E Minor Scherzo—the most often played of his Three Fantasies—is given a dazzling reading in under two minutes, made all the more exciting by parades of beauteous tones that rarely exceed pianissimo level. The B side conjoined two of the composer’s most popular Lieder ohne Worte, both in the key of A—and both probably recorded in a single sitting—and Kempff’s mastery of cantabile lyricism is exceeded here only by his mastery of rubato. The other Romantic disc provided a complete contrast by pairing Schumann’s demanding Toccatta with the Brahms E-flat Rhapsody. Though the Toccata is somewhat marred by an extensive cut paring it down to four minutes and thirty seconds, any lingering doubts concerning the twenty-eight-year-old pianist’s virtuosic stature were forever vanquished when listeners heard his blistering, effortless account of a work long considered a rite of passage for aspiring titans. But while the tempo is unrelenting, the fiendish double-note passagework is warmly expressive, for he seems capable of lowering it to a whisper without ever sacrificing momentum. Since effective editing was still decades away, errors and smudged passages are a common feature of recordings from this era, and the careful listener may locate a few as this work moves closer to its powerful climax. But Kempff’s lengthening of the crashing chord sequence beginning at bar 260 is a fascinating modification, for he extends Schumann’s four-bar chordal passage down another octave before abruptly deleting the required twenty measures to reach his final cadence in the allotted time. The E-flat Rhapsody on the B side is also stirring and powerful, but given the extraordinary accelerandos which come off as a bit roughly hewn near the end, one wonders if a sound engineer might have been prodding the young pianist with a stopwatch.
EMBARKING ON AN ODYSSEY
The remainder of Kempff’s acoustic output was devoted entirely to Beethoven, and establishes him as the first pianist in history to place fully a quarter of the composer’s sonatas on disc. By the 1920s, the Scottish-born Frederic Lamond (1868–1948), a student of both Liszt and Bülow (and nearly thirty years Kempff’s senior) had long been acclaimed as the preeminent Beethoven interpreter in Germany and throughout Europe, and as early as 1899, he was routinely performing the last five sonatas in a single evening. In 1922, his HMV recording of the “Emperor” established him as the first artist to commit Beethoven’s most popular concerto to disc, and by then he was already pursuing his dream of recording all thirty-two sonatas—a dream that was famously shattered in 1932 when HMV executives were convinced that Artur Schnabel was a better choice. But between 1926 and 1930, Lamond did record seven complete sonatas for HMV’s microphones, although three of these were re-recordings, since his “Moonlight,” his “Waldstein,” and his “Appassionata” had already been released acoustically (as well as individual movements from the Op. 10, No. 2, and the Op. 31, No. 3).
Thus, Kempff’s achievement is all the more significant since he was the only pianist to record so many Beethoven sonatas acoustically in their entirety, and he also recorded more sonatas than any other pianist before 1930. And while Lamond and others tended to restrict their earliest acoustic offerings to the “Moonlight” and other popular favorites, Kempff also addressed two late-period masterpieces that were scarcely considered crowd pleasers: Opus 90 and Opus 101. In all, from 1928 to 1943, he recorded twenty-three sonatas electrically (rerecording all his early acoustics except the 101), and years later, he left two complete cycles on LP, the first recorded from 1951 to 1956, and the second (in stereo) from 1964 to 1965. But the early acoustic set has never before been presented in its entirety, and these recordings provide a fascinating portrait of the artist on the verge of an odyssey that lasted through his lifetime. It should also be said that he augmented these sonatas with a stunning rendition of the “G Major Rondo” from Opus 51, a performance so extraordinary that it must rank as one of the gems of his acoustic output (despite the ten measures that he artfully omits beginning at bar 180 to accommodate space requirements). Here the pianist glides through Beethoven’s scalar passages with a gossamer ease so that the effect never seems labored, but lyrically serene.
The eight sonatas may best be discussed according to their chronological opus numbers, and the earliest in this set is Opus 13. The “Grave” introduction of Kempff’s “Pathétique” is revelatory because it gives little hint of the didactic approach followed by so many modern pianists in which each metrical subdivision is precisely calculated. On the contrary, beginning at bar five, he plays the left-hand sixteenths almost at half time—far more slowly than his opening tempo would dictate—and a similar elasticity is seen through the entire section, creating an overall effect that is immensely expressive, but never cerebral. By the same token, the “Allegro,” which begins as vibrantly as anyone could wish, is unrelenting as it pushes toward the more melodic section at bar fifty-one, where he begins to take additional time to sing Beethoven’s lyrical theme. The endearing A-flat melody that shapes the second movement is unadorned and presented with extreme simplicity, while no performance of the “Appassionata” was ever more powerful than Kempff’s “Pathétique” finale, made all the more exciting by the leggierissimo effects that punctuate his blazing tempo. Arguably, the highlight of the Opus 26 Sonata is also its finale, which can so often sound pedestrian in the hands of others, but which sparkles here with glistening leggiero effects. The “Moonlight” opening movement, with its barely audible triplets, beguiles throughout, as the ear is drawn only to the melodic octaves—while Beethoven’s thunderous finale roars effortlessly.
Interestingly, Kempff’s acoustic version of the “Waldstein”—one of the masterpieces of this collection—bears a striking similarity to Gieseking’s (electrical) Columbia recording done in Berlin some fourteen years later. The same iridescent filigree-like colors that seem to evaporate from the instrument at blinding, ghostly speed characterize both, and never does either artist’s coloring palette even approach tonal harshness. Likewise, the “Appassionata” beguiles with the sheer beauty of its sound, which only enhances the mystery of the first movement, but one wonders if Kempff’s schedule was becoming overtaxing, since the number of smudged passages and split octaves seems to be escalating. They are apparent in the first movement coda beginning at bar 239, and even in the exquisite filigree shrouding the second movement theme. There are also smudges in the finale of “Les Adieux,” and while still exciting, many effects seem frenetic and choppy.
By contrast, Opus 90, a particular favorite of Kempff, is a masterpiece of craftsmanship. In both movements, he follows Beethoven’s tempo and expressive markings to the letter, and his tonal colors are little short of miraculous. Equally magnificent is the opening movement of Opus 101, played with a bit of a lilt, and always with an elasticity that stands ready to aid expressivity. The March which follows is taken at a breathtaking clip that often approaches ♩=180 (as opposed to Schnabel’s recommended ♩=152), and made all the more gripping by a persistent double dotting. At times it even suggests lightning flashes, but it must be acknowledged that not everything comes off perfectly. The same is true of the formidable fugal movement which serves as the Sonata’s finale, and which zips along at tempos ranging anywhere from ♩=160 to ♩=180 (Schnabel recommended ♩=126). To be sure, Kempff’s rendering is filled with remarkable pianistic flourishes—for example, the fearsome double-note passage beginning at bar 247—but it is strewn with so many missed notes and smudged passages that one wonders why of his eight acoustics, this was the only Sonata not rerecorded electrically.
In the fall of 1924, Kempff was appointed Director of the Württemberg Conservatory of Music in Stuttgart, a full-time position that consumed much of his time and energy over the next year, and this may explain why he did not make another recording till the following September. The work was Beethoven’s C Major Concerto, and it proved to be both the last acoustic he made for Polydor, as well as the first commercial release of one of the most popular concertos in the modern repertoire. Though he was accompanied by the Berlin State Opera Orchestra, no conductor is cited, and some have even suggested that the soloist may have conducted from the keyboard. While this is always possible, it certainly was not characteristic for any pianist in this time period, and it seems equally improbable that had the conductor been the State Opera’s esteemed Erich Kleiber, he would have remained uncredited, since at the time Kleiber was far better known than Kempff. The first movement opens at a brisk ♩=140, but when the piano enters, the tempo suddenly recedes to ♩=120, since Kempff never resisted stretching a tempo to emphasize more lyrical sentiments. In fact, the entire movement conveys an immense spatial freedom since the virtuosic arpeggios at bar 119 suddenly jump back to ♩=140, and throughout the movement, the tempo often shows similar elasticity. In Kempff’s hands, the “A-flat Largo” becomes an ethereal dream—as moving as any bel canto aria—while the “Finale,” here conveyed at a blistering ♩=160, is a veritable thrill ride from start to finish. For the third movement, he also utilized his considerable skill to compose a wholly original cadenza, while for the first movement, he chose one of the three that Beethoven composed, dispatched here with a matchless virtuosity and excitement.
Kempff’s final recordings were mixed by Deutsche Grammophon’s engineers in 1982—he was then eighty-six—though as scholar and discographer Frank Forman has noted, those sessions might have actually occurred a few years earlier. Nonetheless, a studio career that began in the acoustic era and spanned nearly six decades is a singular achievement, and even more remarkably, except for a brief period from 1949–1958 when he also recorded for British Decca, he remained with Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft for his entire career. And when taken as a whole, his first Polydors—the earliest recorded examples of his art—help peel back that “aura of mystery” which many felt he often conveyed. In fact, they reveal that, from the moment his first disc appeared, Wilhelm Kempff was already a master.
Wilhelm Kempff at the dawn of his recording career [pdf]
The passionate pianist and sound engineer that is Ward Marston offers us in 3 CDs from his label Marston Records, in transfers that are miraculous, all of these venerable relics that are the acoustic 78 rpm records of Wilhelm Kempff (1895-1991)!
—Michel Tibbaut, Crescendo Magazine, January, 2023