A roller-coaster ride: Freddy Kempf piano recital

Freddy Kempf has a heavy programme on hand. He solidly performs them all, but in surprisingly different approaches. Things get nasty at the end.


Beethoven’s Op. 109, the first of the series of last three late sonatas, is the lightest one compared to the remaining pieces to be played. The delightful touch and streaming flow opens the evening magnificently. The music becomes increasingly hard: the second movement is lightningly fast and, before the lengthy and quiet finale, late-comers are mysteriously allowed to be seated, causing some unease. It is not the technicality gets harder, the sound itself gets harder too: Robert Schumann’s lengthy Symphonic Etude is to follow. Mr. Kempff quickly establishes contrasts between the etudes; a deep yet a bit harsh beginning is followed by razor sharp dotted rhythm, which he is able to maintain throughout.

It is only when Mr. Kempff plays a rather rhapsodic version of Pictures at an Exhibition that the music gets sour. Most of the time he is dashing through the music, sometimes to a desirable push towards to good intensity, sometimes to a messy cluster after over-voltage. There are surprising dynamics, that my scores on hand would disagree: mine is not a scholarly version and therefore I am not at a qualified position to assess the reason behind Mr. Kempff’s performance, but those changes do take me by big surprise.

Mr. Kempff pushes the envelop to the point that he makes the Pictures a rather brutal one. The sound is, most of the time, intense and heavy that the music loses most of its romantic gesture. The delightful contrast that he makes in Beethoven is no longer evident in Pictures. After the eloquent Beethoven and cheerful Schumann, it takes an unexpected turn to a speedy and terrifying ride on a roller-coaster.

We have some nice exchanges after the concert on Twitter and Facebook. One thing is agreed: Mr. Kempff doesn’t sound as in his recording. That is one of the most wonderful thing to hear a performance live: you witness a manifesto that would only be declared once. That is not certainly a pleasant Pictures, and I have left before Mr. Kempff strikes the first note of Chopin’s Grand Polonaise (it precedes a tranquil Barcarolle from Tchaikovsky’s Seasons), but his technique is remarkably competent, capable to control and to shine as he thinks whenever in some of these longest continuous pieces written for piano. There are pleasant moments, but I leave with a certain unease.

Photo © Neda Navaee

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