Reflections on Wilhelm Kempff

In my younger years I occasionally decided who the greatest recorded pianist was. My answer was usually Vladimir Horowitz, although Dinu Lipatti figured heavily. Later I would go with Sviatoslav Richter, although my heart wasn't really in it. Critics from the past would often nominate Rubinstein, or Rachmaninov. It was of course clear to me how infantile the question was, but it had a touch of seriousness to it that would not leave me in peace, even if the necessity of the question seemed as dubious as the ultimate answer.

Watching Wilhelm Kempff play Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata Op.106 on a video from 1964, that question seems even more infantile. Kempff is one of those rare pianists who are instantly recognizable, although it is far from clear what his recognizable features are. But his playing in this Sonata, and in many of his other recordings, prompts the question: what can be done better here? Naturally, his often mentioned technical limitations or indifference? lead to messy passages, especially in this most demanding of Sonatas. But any fan of Horowitz must be a seasoned forgiver, possibly a discreet admirer of technical mess, and even Richter had his messy moments. The point is surely that in the realm of musical purpose, colour, gesture or articulation there is in the case of this Sonata no superior pianist. There are many other great pianists of course, who come to entirely different musical conclusions than Kempff, many whose virtues lie in different areas. It is not that he is better than anyone else, merely that no other pianist is better than him.

Many aspects of Kempff's playing have caused consternation amongst music lovers, particularly in view of his undeniable virtues. Again and again one finds his performances described as indifferent, awkward, or messy. It is undeniable that many of his performances contain passages of technical imperfection, both in terms of inaccuracy and more subtle weaknesses such as unevenness of sound or tempo. Beyond that Kempff is often accused of playing with seeming indifference of not bringing out the emotional implications of the music or seeming to appreciate them, without on the other hand making a virtue of such coolness in the way that Richter or Rudolf Serkin sometimes do. He generally chooses moderate tempi which he tends to modify with little rubato. His tonal range can often be surprisingly small. Visually he often seemed to be going through the motions, neither emoting his experience of the music nor meditating on it, merely playing with a distant look in his eyes, a little like the look cats sometimes have whilst relieving their bladder. Often his playing seems to make a point of avoiding any danger of excitement, but again without making a feature of that in the way Claudio Arrau sometimes does. In short, aside from tangible inaccuracy and occasional unevenness, Kempff's main problem seems to be that his playing contains characteristics shared by other pianists, but much less categorically, thereby displaying these features in the manner of weaknesses rather than conscious choices.

A performance that provides good examples of all this is Kempff's live recording of the Schumann Piano Concerto, conducted by Rafael Kubelik in 1974. It is played at a noticeably slower tempo than usual, with less rubato, and less tonal variety than is commonly used in this most romantic of concerti. There is none of the yearning, the introspection or the searching one is accustomed to in this music. The last movement contains moments of moderate romantic excitement, but overall it sounds not unlike a Mozart Concerto in its classicism. In fact, one could almost describe it as boring. Pablo Casals apparently felt that Mozart should be played like Chopin and Chopin like Mozart. Horowitz, to whom Casals made this suggestion, certainly warmed to the first part of this instruction, but only Kempff seems to be interested in the second, applying it to Schumann as well. Added to that are some accuracy issues wrong notes in the trickier passages of the last movement and elsewhere. One could get the feeling that Kempff is phoning in his part, in modern cinematic parlance, that he is past his best he was 79 at the time. At the same time however, there is a colossal sense of concentration, of integrity with the orchestra; phrases are passed from tutti to solo and back again with perfect coherence, leading to cadences of perfect clarity and validity. There is little rubato, but the phrases nevertheless breathe and naturally form larger units, although there is no whiff of Schenkerian lines or anti-romantic classicism a la Serkin or Gould. It merely seems that Kempff feels no need to pull the tempo, although that he would be perfectly happy to do so if necessary. Similarly, his limited tonal palette is noticeable but much less dogmatic than Gould's, and his tone itself is of unparalled purity and beauty, again without becoming impressionistic or self-conscious. The resulting performance is one that seems to encompass much more than the sum of its parts, but it contains so many unaccustomed features that it must be one of the most unusual performances of a major concerto, almost to the same degree as Gould's famous Brahms D Minor Concerto performance with Leonard Bernstein.

The only concerto performance even more unusual could arguably be Kempff's recording of Chopin's F Minor Concerto with Karel Ančerl, a performance ranging from the sublime to the perverse. The first movement of this live recording from 1959 is so full of technical weaknesses and musical bloody-mindedness that it is genuinely hard to digest. It is hard to imagine a musical strategy that would necessitate quite such roughness and classicism. The third movement shares much of this, but seems more controlled, and is therefore harder to dismiss. Kempff seems to be searching for the sort of rhythmic development and structure one might normally highlight in Beethoven or Haydn, allowing minimal flexibility of his very moderate tempo. The result lacks the grace and elegance we are accustomed to in this music, but it does reveal aspects normally missed. Chopin, less keen on Beethoven, was nevertheless a great admirer of Haydn and Mozart, not to mention Bach, so the idea that some of the Teutonic rigour of their music might have infected his Slavic soul is not without feasibility. But in the central movement Kempff's approach blossoms. His sound here is of the utmost warmth a quality often mistaken for beauty in romantic music with only moments of slight roughness in the agitated middle section. The near absence of rubato turns the piano part into a barcarolle, swaying with the regularity of gentle waves but flowing ever onwards. There is no loss of poetry here, instead the music gains a hypnotic pulse no other pianist has found. It is piano playing of the highest order. The middle section contains moments in which the surging scales and arpeggios suddenly feel a little like Brahms, but overall it must be one of the most magical performances of this movement on record.

Kempff was clearly interested in Chopin, as he recorded quite a number of the solo works, many of them beautifully. His Barcarolle Op.60 is a match for any other, again highlighting the regularity of pulse he found in the Concerto movement. In general, Kempff is at his most celebrated in his performances of Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms, so his lesser known exploits in Chopin or Liszt might be of little interest. However, it can be argued that the true value of a musician can be found not in what comes easiest, but in the repertoire he or she is less associated with. It is here that a seeming incompatibility of style between pianist and composer can lead to original and unexpected experiences, in which well-known war horses of the repertoire are suddenly revealed in new light. This is certainly the case in many of Kempffs performances of Chopin and to some extent Liszt.

Great pianists great musicians usually play with a sound that seems full of purpose, full of concentrated possibilities, and therefore aesthetically pregnant. Some pianists however have the gift of creating a beautiful sound, of spreading warmth and resonance over and above others. A perfect example of this is the recording of Alfred Cortot demonstrating to a pupil the opening of Beethoven's Sonata in A Flat Op.110. Cortot's hands descend onto the keys, seemingly without any single point of contact, and the sound emerges from the piano as if it had always been there, glowing, warm, like a golden object lit up by the embers of a retreating fireplace. Kempff has a similar gift. The sound of the piano emerges without attack, radiant and gentle. Even when he is playing exciting or dramatic music the sound retains its gentle quality, such as in the opening of his recording of Liszt's Legend of St Francis Walking Across the Waves. This sound is of course less laden with tension than that of Horowitz, less decisive than that of Richter, but of a gentleness that neither of those titans could probably understand. As a result, Kempff's performances lack the crazed neuroticism of Horowitz or the rugged inevitability of Richter, and are perhaps therefore less exciting in the immediate sense. But they contain an element no other pianist offers to quite the same degree.

As well as displaying a certain disregard for technical perfection whether because it was beyond him or of little interest Kempff often eschews the polished qualities of craftsmanship many other pianists could offer. His tone is often uneven, textures can lack transparency, rhythms can be imprecise features which would cost the aspiring pianists of today dearly. Coupled with his limitations in accuracy it is no wonder he is sometimes accused of awkwardness or clumsiness. These accusations have also often been raised against Kempff's compatriots Wilhelm Backhaus and Artur Schnabel, and against Edwin Fischer. It is almost as if it is a common feature of pre-war German pianists to disdain or be incapable of technical polish. Whilst this is again perhaps related to the fact that most recordings by these pianists date from their later years, there may be some truth in the accusation. The painter Francis Bacon often complained about German expression as being messy and imprecise malerisch was the term he objected to and it is a feature shared by some of the great renaissance German painters. Compared to their Italian contemporaries artists such as Memlink and Cranach, even Drer, seemed clumsy and unrefined. But few would argue that they are not capable of great art. Within the sometimes awkward gestures of a Cranach there lie moments of great truth and beauty, and the unrefined Grunewald produced some of the most raw and moving paintings of the renaissance. Was this in spite of the technical awkwardness? Or was it precisely because of it? Does the awkwardness, the seeming lack of precision leave space for an inner truth to emerge that would struggle to survive the personality of a more refined artist? Of course, just because something looks clumsy doesn't mean it is great and true it could be that the painter just couldn't paint. But Francis Bacon himself regarded chance and indetermination as important sources of his creativity, and his visual distortions fulfil a similar role to the awkwardness of others they allow moments of truth to emerge, moments in which the onlooker is drawn in to complete something that is not fully determined. This is an effect noticeable in much of Kempff's playing, and that of some of his colleagues charged with clumsiness.

If we are to crystallize certain aspects of Kempff's style, we might list a tendency to restrain use of rubato, to employ moderate tempi, and to avoid very strong tonal contrasts, in short, to play with moderation in many respects. Visually, Kempff's performances are also examples of moderation: critics have bemoaned his impassive expression, his seeming detachment. He never looks bored, but perhaps seems like an interested onlooker, occasionally raising an eyebrow, but rarely more. These are of course all traits not uncommon in older performers, and one must not forget that the bulk of Kempff's recordings date from his 60s onwards, up until his 80s. We have few examples of his tempestuous and vice-ridden youth! But he certainly aged more in the mould of Horowitz in his 80s than Serkin with his carefree unwillingness to compromise. But the central feature is one of undogmatic stubbornness, a desire to avoid anything too decisive or extreme, even when this desire in itself becomes extreme. One need only to compare Kempff's Goldberg Variations with those of Gould: all the vivacious energy and rhythm of Gould disappears, as does the crystal centre of each note, the tension of the slower lines and the overawing presence of the pianist. But in their place appears a gentleness, a freedom to breathe and a space for the listener to roam, without any loss of musical purpose from the pianist. It is a version not easily acquired by a listener accustomed to the great performances by Gould, as it seems almost perverse in its refusal to pursue the obvious possibilities of the music, but the resulting world is one that can bring one close to quite different emotional and expressive possibilities which one can only superficially label romantic.


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