Tuesday, October 5, 2010

In praise of Wilhelm Kempff

As a music student I didn't appreciate Wilhelm Kempff. I based my opinion on just a couple of his recordings, and on my own musical prejudices at the time. Also I only heard him live once, at his very last London recital at the Royal Festival Hall, when he was clearly infirm, and his playing was marked by a continuous slowing down of the tempo and difficulty in playing. Like many music students today (if the comments on YouTube are anything to go by) I measured pianists in those days as much by their technique as by their soul. Now I am ONLY interested in their soul.

I remember the amazing ovation the audience gave Kempff at that concert at the Festival Hall in London and didn't fully appreciate at the time that that ovation was for his life's work, and not for that concert. Most of all what I didn't hear, because my ears were closed at the time (reference Oscar Wilde's comments in his wonderful 'De Profundis' on the importance of meekness in an audience in order to be moved), and what I now hear SO CLEARLY is the deep and extremely sincere warmth and honesty of Kempff's playing. His interpretations are about as far removed from the typical virtuoso as it is possible to get, characterized by the lack of any intention to 'show off' and instead filled by just a deep, a serious, and at times humble appreciation of the beauty of the music he is playing. It's a 'quiet' approach (not literally of course), and a different universe to the 'in your face' interpretations that so easily seem to capture the musical headlines (to any historian of music that should immediately recall contemporary descriptions of Chopin's performances). For what it is worth (which is not much) Kempff was never known for his technique, and in his occasional finger slips he shares a kinship with Edwin Fischer - another wonderful pianist whose recordings I admire so much- funny that! If only music students today (and the establishments that nurture them) would realise that while audiences may forgive a wrong note they can never forgive a cold heart.

The Bach recording below is a perfect example of Kempff's warm heart. Today, for me, he is one of the very few pianists who move me and whose music making I always look forward to hearing. Thanks to the abundance of his recordings on the internet I can appreciate his art so much more now than sadly when I was lucky enough to have sat in his last London recital counting wrong notes instead of warm hearts. That's a thought to keep me humble...

And for those who know how particular I am about the way pianists play Chopin (or I think the correct phrase is 'murder Chopin') then they may be surprised by my putting a Chopin performance here. In my opinion most pianists suffocate Chopin with completely misguided 'rubatos' (that huge Chopin misnomer) and terrible affectations, so out of place for a composer who was above all, totally honest in his musical expression. Above all, Chopin's music needs an 'honest' interpretation, the ability to let the music speak for itself. Listen to the completely unaffected, deeply serious and moving performance Kempff gives in this 1959 live recording with conductor Karel Ancerl of the slow movement of Chopin's Piano Concerto in F minor. Perhaps you'll agree with me that here Kempff is far closer to the composer's spirit than so many so-called 'Chopin specialists'!