Beethoven Piano Sonatas: Kempff Monos

Walt Mundkowsky

[October 2010.]

Cover of Deutsche Grammophon B0000012XC

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas (32) (rec. 1951-56). Wilhelm Kempff (p). Deutsche Grammophon B0000012XC (8 CDs + bonus disc) (http://www.deutschegrammophon.com/).

I have reached the point where I can see that music must sound rounded and, as it were, weightless. I am totally against music’s being ugly, against notes emerging as if chopped off, against any element of tension and effort.— Wilhelm Kempff

That describes the limits of his approach, and should be sufficient to tell anyone what’s in store. In 2010 (90 years after he first set foot in the studio!), more words aren’t required. I offer “a few clues for latecomers” (Godard, Bande à part, 1964).

Kempff recorded three intégrales — 1926-45 (on shellac), this one (mono) and a 1964-65 stereo remake. The mono cycle hit CD only in 1995 (the centenary of Kempff’s birth). At first it arrived as a “special import,” making me conclude that it wouldn’t be around long. I’m delighted to have been mistaken. His stereo edition reached disc several years earlier; it doesn’t often scale the same heights, and in general sounds curiously worse.

As his quote suggests, Kempff forges an individual path through this much-played music. His Beethoven may operate on a smaller, more Classical scale than we normally hear, but there’s nothing bland or lightweight about the results. Measured Allegros, brisk Adagios, precise and varied attacks, and subtly graded dynamics provide bite and color. They also coalesce into a remarkable portrait of Beethoven’s developing powers. In this cycle, each of the 32 sonatas receives the pianist’s undivided scrutiny (some of the “minor” unnamed works stand among Kempff’s sharpest), realizing them as a coherent journey for veterans and newcomers alike. (I’ve long advocated this box as a fine starting point.)

Arguably Kempff doesn’t reward a taste for the titanic (the Hammerklavier’s Adagio, or the trills of Op. 111), but he can surprise. If Schnabel had been unable to finish his run of sonatas, he wanted Kempff to complete it. They seemed an odd match until I remembered a Schnabel line, “The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes — ah, that is where the art resides!” He found that artistry in Kempff. In the last movement of the Waldstein here, one feels a “not yet” to the surging momentum usually displayed. Such restraint doesn’t intimate power, it becomes power.

The late-mono transfers are admirably clear and quiet with solid imaging and impact. DG loses ground on packaging (nine discs in paper sleeves), also for not including the superb notes Kempff produced for the original LPs. (The vinyl reissue had a single double-sided sheet with timings, no more.) But Kempff ranks with the greatest — Schnabel’s, Arrau’s 1960s set, perhaps other domains.