Freddy Kempf’s Intelligent and Integrated View of Beethoven

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven: Freddy Kempf (piano/conductor), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 11.5.12 (GPu)

Overture, Fidelio, Op.72
Piano Concerto No.4, Op.58
Piano Concerto No.5, Op.73

“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”. That was how I began a review of the first in a pair of all-Beethoven concerts (of which this was the second) back in October 2011. The programme then was made up ofpiano Concertos 1 (Op.15), 2 (Op.19) and 3 (Op.37); this second concert added the fourth and fifth concertos and the Fidelio overture and I’d be happy to use exactly the same words again for the work of the Royal Philharmonic and Freddy Kempf.

The evening opened with a Fidelio overture that was intelligently shaped and punchily accented. The sense of drama was everywhere apparent and the contrasts of dynamics and tempi were very well handled, the whole breathing both heroic nobility and excited tension. As in the previous concert it was immediately clear that this orchestra enjoys working with Kempf; there was a sense of mutual trust which promised well for the two demanding concertos to follow.

The G major concerto’s opening allegro moderato had a sense of serenity and space, of insistent but tender reflection; throughout pianist and orchestra created a fully coherent sense that they represented aspects of the same mind at work (in a sense more profound than the ‘simple’ fact that on this occasion pianist and conductor were one and the same). In the opening of the slow movement the strings of the Royal Philharmonic produced a beautifully integrated sound; Kempf’s playing created the sense that the notes were drawn from the keyboard with a kind of sorrow at being forced into utterance at all; the understated lamenting of the keyboard part persuasively enacted its role as ‘tamer’ of the orchestra in the famous analogy of this movement with Orpheus’ taming of the Furies. It would have been a stern (or deaf) Fury indeed who could have resisted here! In the closing movement, the first contributions of trumpet and drum played their part in the music’s switchback of moods, lyrical, witty and aggressive. When Kempf’s concentration was most needed at the keyboard it was evident how big a part the Royal Philharmonic’s leader, the excellent Clio Gould played in guiding and structuring the work of the orchestra.

The ‘Emperor’ seemed, surely, the concerto which might prove at, or beyond, the limits of a pianist-director. In fact, the performance was a joy from beginning to end. Where the earlier concerto memorably (and originally) begins with a reticent opening phrase for the piano, answered only by the orchestral strings, here Beethoven begins the concerto (just as memorably, and just as originally!) with flamboyant writing for piano punctuated by a series of orchestral chords – Kempf and ‘his’ orchestra seemed equally at home in both openings, openings which proclaim the differences between the two works. This, of course, is a concerto which makes very considerable demands on the soloist and it was, to put it mildly, very impressive that Freddy Kempf should have been able to meet all those demands while also directing the orchestra. The hymnal writing of the adagio and the tightly scored rondo were both handled with a clarity of purpose and articulation that altogether transcended any residual anxieties one might have had about the manageability of this mode of performance. There were one or two moments when one wondered whether Kempff would get back to the keyboard in time for his next entry, but he always did and not a single entry was fluffed or smudged. Such anxieties forgotten, one could take one’s pleasure in the music itself, a seamless performance expressive (for obvious reasons) of a fully integrated vision of the music. Altogether splendid.

Glyn Pursglove


For another review of the same program performed in Cheltenham, see Roger Jones’s Energetic Kempf Confounds Sceptics in Beethoven Concert