Subtlety Suffocated by Bombast in Kempf’s Recital

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Schumann, Mussorgsky: Freddy Kempf (piano), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 16.1.2014 (LJ)

Beethoven, Sonata in E, Op. 109
Schumann, Fantasiestücke, Op. 12
Toccata, Op. 7
Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition.


As he strode purposefully onto the stage wearing a black polar-neck jumper and dark suit, Freddy Kempf’s manner was commanding and business-like. Refined in dress though robust in style, Kempf’s performances of Beethoven’s Sonata in E, Schumann’s Fantasiestücke and Toccata, and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition were both enlighteningly insightful and excessively indulgent.

Opening with Beethoven’s Sonata in E, Op. 109, Kempf seemed slightly uneasy as he grappled with its restlessly shape-shifting figures. Despite assertive accents, his playing seemed to drift motionlessly and felt directionless, devoid of intention. However, the languorous Prestissimo in E minor was infused with compassion and tenderness. Kempf gave this movement a mellifluous feel and with drastic dynamic contrast snatched at the moments of fevered,  intensity. Highlighting Beethoven’s use of Baroque structural forms (particularly those of Handel and Bach) Kempf reduced the commanding Romantic spirit that fuels much of Beethoven’s oeuvre to produce a more intimate and altogether lyrical sound. With his technical flawlessness, Kempf allowed the purity of each note, phrase and passage to speak for itself in this section. Though brief, this movement was particularly memorable. Achieving an even sound and harmonious balance, Kempf carved feeling into its shape and imbued radiance into the centre. Having failed to establish himself assuredly in the first movement of the piece, Kempf (though he certainly regained a sense of presence and understanding in the second movement) couldn’t realise the piece as a whole in the third movement. This is a work which is centred on the completion of idiomatic motifs, rhythms, and scale passages in the third movement. As such it requires the first two movements to be played with carefully meditated intention. Unfortunately, I felt that Kempf did not maximise the suggestive hints in the first two movements to foreground the thematic motifs with adequate emphasis. Consequently, in the third movement the ‘process of exploration and re-discovery of the theme’, as musicologist Kay Dreyfus puts it, couldn’t be actualised.

Inspired by E. T. A. Hoffmann’s 1814 collection of novellas entitled Fantasiestücke in Callots Manier, Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestücke Op. 12 is like a entering a somnambulist’s delirium. Unveiling Hoffmann’s style of writing, George Sand’s comments can equally be attributed to Schumann’s musical world: ‘Never in the history of the human spirit has anyone entered more freely and more purely into the world of dream.’ Kempf’s performance felt just like that. Submerged in its flights of fancy, he illumined Schumann’s gentle touch in Des Abends, his abiliy to terrify in Aufschwung and boyish qualities in Grillen. The dismembered multiplicity and sheer variety of emotions within this simultaneously splintered and securely fastened piece was exemplified by the long pauses Kempf took between each segment. In varying the length of time he rested between each part, Kempf allowed the silences to shape the overall form of this magnificently disjointed whole. Holistic by nature, Kempf’s performance highlighted the interrelatedness of its parts as he penetrated into the contrasting dialogue between Schumann’s split self – Florestan (extroverted and outgoing) and Eusebius (introverted and wistful). Through a carefully moderated musical enjambment (for example, Kempf used the pedals to exude mild tenderness and resisted saccharine slurs in the Fabelsection); and inserted a pulsing vein of nocturnal passion into an atmosphere of ethereal tranquillity.

Contrasting a predominant sense of cyclicality with an omnipresence of Schumann’s Doppelgänger, this is a piece of perfect accord, pricked with a piquant note of dissonance. In the Aufschwung, Kempf resorted to slamming his left hand down onto the bass chords, creating a thunderous rumbling which he contrasted with blinding lightning flashes in the higher register. Thus, he created a startling chiaroscuro effect of lux in tenebris. Perhaps such obvious distinction overshadowed the painfully self-critical insecurities beneath the surface of this piece. Within Schumann’s spiralling thoughts there is always a sense of fragility and tension which reside in a hazy in-between space between the belligerent and beguiling. Unfortunately, through Kempf’s virtuosic fury, the understated elusiveness of the piece evaded him. Ultimately, this is a composition where tradition meets outlandishness as tenderness is challenged by tenacity. Schumann’s brilliance is that he manages to touch every burgeoning certainty with quivering doubt and self-reflective uncertainty. Twisting and turning in a quintessentially Schumanesque fashion, Kempf avoids trite completion in favour of an unadulterated exploration into the refracted, fragmentary, continually evolving self.

Apart from exposing Kempf’s astonishingly accurate technical prowess, Schumann’s Toccata, Op. 7, was nothing more than a wowing crowd pleaser. Closing the first half with a firework display of technical challenges, Kempf added some thoughtful reflection to an otherwise showy piece of cascading octave chords. However, described by Schumann – who is thought to have injured his hands when trying to master his own composition – as ‘the hardest piece ever written’, the Toccata is explosive at the expense of Schumann’s playful frivolity and exquisitely beautiful melodic grace which characterises his most loved and venerated works.

Kempf’s performance of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition was lavishly painted with a heightened sense of drama. In a suite consisting of ten movements with a recurring (and slightly varying) promenade one expects coherence and unity. Disappointingly, Kempf seemed to be rhythmically confused as he became obsessed with thumping out menacing chords instead of evoking Mussorgsky’s peculiar walking pattern. Each part seemed to be severed from the whole and any intended connectivity was lost. Performed at hair-raising speed, Kempf’s performance was a series of glimpses rather than an interrelated investigation into an unsettled sense of self (Mussorgsky composed Pictures at an Exhibition during a period of grief and alcoholism). In a letter to the critic Vladimir Stasov in June 1874 Mussorgsky admitted that his ‘physiognomy can be seen in the interlude’, adding: ‘sounds and ideas hang in the air, I am gulping and overeating, and can barely manage to scribble them on paper’. Concordantly, this is a work which emerged from an intensely fraught period and requires a pallet of colours to give voice to the intermingling of the gargantuan, grotesque, and graceful within Mussorgsky at the time of composition. In the uncommon key of G sharp minor, The Old Castle was played with disarming directness and mystique. In this short segment Kempf created an eerily alluring atmosphere. However, for the most part Kempf was deafeningly bold and unfeelingly stark in his approach to this piece as his all-encompassing grandeur ousted any sense of relief or restiveness of the recurring promenade. Kempf inserted so much pomp and pageantry that by the end of the work, one felt that The Great Gate of Kiev had been slammed in your face with a resounding clang of iron bars ricocheting between the walls of the concert hall.

Despite the disconcerting end to the programme, Kempf was heartedly applauded by Cardiff’s zealous (and by this point certainly animated) audience. Kempf responded by playing Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G Flat Major, Op. 23, No. 10. Describing it as a ‘little miniature’, Kempf played methodically, but no doubt exhausted by his unwaveringly Sturm und Drang recital, his encore didn’t possess the slightest gush of feeling or spontaneity. Seemingly bland and disenchanted, the Prelude sounded a little lacklustre.

An afternoon with Freddy Kempf included moments of technical brilliance combined with genuine brilliance. Instead of offering moments of enthralling musical creativity, Kempf’s disconcerting demeanour spoke of a routine ‘day at the office’. In a recital of stark contrasts, where subtlety was suffocated by superlatively bombastic performances, Kempf managed to divide opinions. Memorable for his electrifying performance of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke and some competent passages in both the Beethoven and Mussorgsky, this was an enjoyable and thought provoking afternoon at Cardiff’s RWCMD.

Lucy Jeffery

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