Very Satisfying Start to Freddy Kempf’s Beethoven Piano Concerto Project

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven:   Freddy Kempf (piano / conductor), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 7.10.2011 (GPu)

Piano Concerto No.1, Op.15
Piano Concerto No.2, Op.19
Piano Concerto No.3, Op.37

I’ll put my cards on the table right from the start, by saying that this was one of the most wholly delightful, stimulating and satisfying concerts that I have had the good fortune to attend for quite some time. It was the first of a pair of concerts in the 2011-12 St. David’s Hall International Concert Series, in which Freddy Kempf plays and directs the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in all of Beethoven’s piano concertos (save, naturally enough, for the teenage Concerto in E Flat, Wo0 4). This first concert, as well as being a joy in itself, did much to whet the appetite for its successor – and make one wish that it was due to happen sooner the scheduled date of May 11th!

Kempf played the concertos making up this first programme in numerical order (which is the order of publication) rather than in strictly chronological order (No.2 having been written before No.1). That meant that the evening began with that concerto of Beethoven’s which makes one most conscious of his relatively obvious debts to (and affinities with) Mozart. In particular one is reminded of K.503 (which Beethoven must surely have seen or heard ahead of its publication in 1796) as, for example, in the close of the initial orchestral statement. But, as in all three of these concertos, what one hears is not mere imitation but a compelling and fascinating process of individuation; a process incorporating no less than the creation of a distinctive musical identity. Kempf was a quite masterly guide to that process, to its teasing of expectations as it negotiates (and sometimes subverts) the conventions of the time and form, to the music’s surprises, its beauties and its inevitabilities (though perhaps some of them only seem so with the advantage of hindsight).

Kempf’s stage presence is a modest one; indeed he seems almost reluctant to take a bow, preferring to let the orchestra receive the applause. But, for all the impressive work of the RPO, Kempf was naturally the central figure in this concert,; he committed himself to the twin roles (or should one say to the twin aspects of a single role?) of soloist and conductor with energy and disciplined passion. He stood and conducted, with baton in hand, the opening orchestral tutti of each concerto; he put down the baton on the piano when the time came for him to sit at the keyboard; he leapt up to conduct (minus baton) whenever the piano part allowed him to and timed his return to the piano stool with pleasing precision; sometimes he played with his right hand and directed the orchestra with his left in a manner I have rarely encountered before. But none of this hectic activity, physical as well as emotional and technical, had any feel of showmanship or egocentricity about it; Kempf’s absolute absorption in the music was everywhere evident and one never doubted his desire to serve the music.

The resulting performances respected the varying qualities of Beethoven’s music in these concertos; its energy and its serenity, its wit and its gravity, its elegance (Beethoven can, when he chooses to, be very elegant) and its sheer sparkle. There were beautiful piano colours in allegro which opens No.2 (a concerto which seems to remember Haydn as much as Mozart); the serene adagio which follows was played with such ravishing tenderness that midway through it a couple sitting in front of me turned to look at one another and then exchanged a discrete kiss – it seemed an entirely appropriate reaction. In No.1, in the central episode (in A minor) of the third movement, there were infectiously dancing gipsy rhythms and in the largo which preceded it we were treated to a dialogue between clarinet and piano that hinted at so much that was later to characterise Beethoven’s fully mature music. In both of these concertos the orchestral textures were models of transparent weight, never remotely thin but never in danger of becoming at all clogged or clotted. Time and again themes, and the relationships between them, were stated with a lucidity that avoided all exaggeration. Woodwinds and strings alike were exemplary and the whole orchestral sound, as well as being beautifully integrated with the piano, was on a thoroughly convincing scale.

With Concerto No.3 we enter a somewhat different (though closely related) musical world. Right from the opening bars there is a greater sense of drama, a more peculiarly Beethovenian kind of power. The model of Mozart is still visible, however, and Kempf resisted that temptation to which many a pianist and conductor have succumbed: to inflate this concerto’s manner and substance inappropriately. It is a work that has unmissable connections with K.491. And yet, of course, it is a work that Mozart wouldn’t have written. It is a kind of transitional work (which description is not meant to suggest that it isn’t a fully ‘finished’ and stylistically coherent work). Tovey, perceptively, says of it that “it is one of the works in which we most clearly see the style of [Beethoven’s] first period preparing to develop into that of his second”. And, happily, Kempf and the RPO proved themselves to be just as much at home here as they had been in the two preceding concertos. There was, comparatively, a greater, but unexaggerated forcefulness to Kempf’s playing in the opening allegro and he allowed (not inappropriately) the piano to assume a more dominant role in some passages than it had in the two earlier concertos. There was a spaciously limpid quality to Kempf’s playing at the opening of the largo and much in the movement had that quasi-religious dimension that so many of the mature Beethoven’s slow movements possess; the work of the woodwinds was particularly fine here too. The final rondo began with a cheerful, almost bubbly, energy and articulation, and the comic (in the highest and best sense of the word) spirit was sustained throughout.

Kempf’s readings of all three concertos were altogether persuasive (which isn’t to say that others couldn’t be imagined – there are no such things as ‘definitive’ interpretations of music as rich as this). One had the feeling that the Orchestra were altogether happy with Kempf’s leadership and orchestra and soloist were entirely at one throughout. One has sometimes taken an odd kind of pleasure in performances of piano concertos in which there was an obvious tension between the tastes of (or the ‘directions’ adopted by) soloist and conductor. The awkwardness of some of the transitions, some of the ‘joins’, in such performances is not without its interest. But how much more satisfying are performances such as these; performances fully expressive of a single vision of the music, in which every element is successfully integrated. And even more special are those occasions, like this one, when one is persuaded (who knows whether rightly or wrongly?) that the composer himself (despite all the changes in instrumentation and musical manner in the years between) might also have experienced a happy sense of ‘recognition’ had he heard the performance.

Glyn Pursglove