Kempf Goes It Alone with the Beethoven Piano Concertos

New ZealandNew Zealand Beethoven: Freddy Kempf (soloist and conductor), New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (Leader: Vesa-Matti Leppanen), Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington. (PM)

Freddy Kempf Rehearses Beethoven with the NZSO 2014
Freddy Kempf Rehearses Beethoven with the NZSO 2014 Photo:  Janina Hanify


Concert One: 28.2.2015
Piano Concerto No 1 in C Major,
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major,
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor

Concert Two: 14.3.2015
Overture “Egmont”
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major,
Piano Concerto No 5 in E-flat Major “Emperor”


For a pianist to perform all five Beethoven piano concertos without a conductor has until recently been a rare feat. I’ve heard it said over time that while the first three concertos are wholly possible to realize satisfactorily with a pianist-conductor, the fourth and fifth are more problematic by dint of their more profound interpretative depths and complexities. Such difficulties as may occur still haven’t deterred a number of pianists from choosing to attempt the task “single-handed” and perform, both live and on recordings their own interpretations. My list includes Daniel Barenboim, Leif Oves Andsnes, Rudolf Buchbinder  and Howard Shelley – and the reviews, of the recordings at least, have been generally positive, rather more consistently so than those of the the live concerts featuring the same artists and performing arrangements.

Now new musical ground here in New Zealand has being broken by London-born pianist Freddy Kempf who has performed all five concertos in this way with the NZSO, as pianist-conductor. He’s done them before trhis way in London a few years ago with the Royal Philharmonic, and more recently, with the St.Petersburg Philharmonic. In a radio interview made a couple of days before the opening Wellington concert Kempf outlined his reasons for wanting to perform the cycle in this way: to better secure a single, unified conception of the music was his abiding concern, an attitude based on experiences he’d previously had playing these works with conductors whose ideas and interpretations didn’t entirely “mesh” with his own.

In practice it worked, but I thought only up to a point. The occasion, taken across the span of both evenings a fortnight apart, became, to paraphrase the title of a famous novel by Charles Dickens, something of “A Tale of Two Concerts”. The first, featuring the three earlier concertos, I thought was by far the more successful undertaking;  throughout, it all bristled with exuberant joy in the music-making, giving rise to interactions between the soloist/conductor and the orchestra that generated fruitful energies in spadefuls. After the concert I and a pianist friend who came with me happily babbled our way along the street in search of some coffee and a debriefing-place, where we could relive and relish some of the most stimulating moments – all very worthwhile and rewarding!

Looking at my notes scribbled at various points during this first concert, I encounter thoughts such as “playing nicely integrated, conveys a sense of both line and dialogue, of unity, instead of doing two jobs” – “very interactive with orchestra – spontaneous-sounding detailing” – “playing as if possessed – uses his silken touch at speed to magical effect” – “orchestral playing as deft as pianist’s” – “makes a real occasion of each piano/orchestra exchange” – ” not just beauty, but great solace in the music”…..everything noted suggests the excitement and satisfaction of encountering music-making that not merely impressed with its brilliance, but readily connected in all kind of ways, like a musical Venn Diagram, with all of the components – composer, music, musicians and listeners – all put in touch with one another creating and recreating impulse-waves of great delight.

That “nicely integrated” quality Kempf and his players to my ears managed most skillfully, allowing the character of the music’s different sections to shine forth while preserving their coverall coherence. Thus the sound-world of each concerto was generously realized, the opening C Major‘s warm and rich ambience contrasting nicely with both the brighter, sparer textures of the more youthful B-flat Concerto (a reduced-size orchestra helping!), and the deeper,darker tones of the C Minor work. The latter performance drew forth the “great solace” from the slow movement which one couldn’t help contrasting to great effect with the relatively untroubled beauties of the earlier concertos. And the sense of “real occasion” in some of the exchanges between piano and orchestra was palpable, such as the right-hand glissando chords with which Kempf ignited the conclusion of the hushed passages just before the C Major work’s first-movement recapitulation – like a meteorite suddenly setting the accompanying stars dancing!

Sadly, I found the second concert’s pair of concerto performances far more variable, with those qualities that had informed the earlier concert’s music-making neither as confidently nor as consistently applied. I must admit that, had I not attended the first concert and had my expectations well-and-truly buoyed up, I think I might have been less disconcerted by it all. Of the second evening’s two concertos, the “Emperor” I thought fared better – Kempf seemed rather more in tune with that work’s extrovert quality and its more obvious display aspects, whereas his treatment of the G Major Concerto I thought had an unsettled, even anxious character in places, mostly to do with his own solo playing.

So, where the three earlier concertos had all truly taken wing, neither of the second concert’s major works, I thought, convinced as performances to the same extent. It was ironic, therefore, that the evening’s very first item, the Overture to “Egmont”, seemed to me to get the concert away to the best possible start. I hadn’t listened to the work for some time, and was delighted to encounter a performance that brought the whole thing alive in the most arresting way. Kempf got playing at the outset which, by turns, featured trenchant attack (brass and strings) and lyrical warmth (winds), encouraging all the while the orchestral players to “explore” the music’s sonorities, and bring out the piece’s revolutionary character – most enjoyable.

In fact, I had no problem with the orchestral contributions throughout both concertos which followed; I thought the playing beautifully-focused at all times, with tempi in the tutti sections well-judged, and the balances exemplary. It seemed that Kempf had taken great pains to work with the players to achieve instrumental clarity, so that any solo lines or concertino passages were able to sing forth, either singly or against the ripieno (larger) group. Kempf also encouraged instruments like the timpani to “speak out”, moments which timpanist Larry Reese obviously relished, using what sounded like hard-headed sticks to give the sound more bite. The string-tone was often ravishing, the winds were all heroes, and, despite an anxious horn moment or two, the brass gave us sounds of great nobility and beauty as required.

A pity, therefore, that a more consistent interpretative focus wasn’t achieved – though I thought Kempf made life more difficult for himself (and possibly, for the players), by adopting the same “leaping up and down” music-direction aspect for the two later concertos as he had done throughout the first concert. A reviewer colleague of mine had found it too much of a “circus act” the first time round, and thought it unnecessary in any case, considering that the orchestra players would have (a) throughly rehearsed the works and attuned themselves to Kempf’s interpretations, and (b) had their leader ideally placed to give cues and set tempi as required. I wasn’t so worried, thinking the “display aspect” of those first three concerti (with the C Minor work representing something of a transition towards a deeper mode of expression) easily accommodated Kempf’s demonstrative direction of the pieces – but I was far less comfortable with his continuation of the same kind of direction for those later works.

Of course the heavenly strains of the G Major Concerto’s first movement couldn’t help but enchant in places, particularly the movement’s coda with both piano and winds uttering the most divine sounds. Elsewhere, I found Kempf’s tendency to push the tempo along when delivering his solos unsettling – a feeling of haste not lessened by the zeal with which he moved between standing to conduct, and then dropping down upon the piano-stool to play his next round of passagework. The process felt to me more fraught in places than exhilarating, unlike the organic flow of interchange that had been generated by the same artists during the first concert.

The great slow movement was better-managed – the playing brought to mind the association of the music with the legend of Orpheus taming the wild beasts. Kempf became as a storyteller of old, strumming his piano like a lyre in places towards the end; while the orchestra, properly assertive to begin with, gradually acquiesced in harmony. The finale was spirited and energetic, though again I wasn’t entirely happy with an almost febrile quality in some of the solo playing, affecting both tone and clarity and seeming out-of-sorts with the music’s character. I’m sure it would have worked as an interpretation had the pianist’s approach been more poised and sure-footed.

That consistency was more in evidence throughout the concert’s final work, the renowned “Emperor” Concerto, one as distinctive as its predecessor in an entirely different way. Though Kempf’s directional style was less intrusive in this work, I still found his constant movement worked against the music’s granite-like grandeur of utterance, something unduly fussy brought into what ought to have been godlike interaction between the musicians. Not being primarily “virtuoso” works both of the concertos in this concert required a different kind of focus – and I remained unconvinced at the end that a single executant could do justice to the direction of the whole. The “Emperor” has, particularly in the first movement, some remarkably combatative sequences between soloist and orchestra. How a single individual could adequately fulfill both roles in the midst of such conflict I couldn’t imagine, and certainly didn’t experience this time round.

It was the orchestra which carried the music’s weight more consistently in this performance;  Kempf’s playing, skilled though it was in places, didn’t provide the essential counterweight for the drama of interaction to properly “play out” and then resolve. People might disagree with my “two heads are better than one” stance in this article – and I haven’t heard any of the recordings mentioned at the start of this review, so I can’t testify to any success from those quarters with making the “single director” approach to these works pay more dividends. So, yes, perhaps that’s something I need to explore before I’m much older, I freely admit! However, for the moment, congratulations to Freddy Kempf and the NZSO on bringing about a fascinating concert experience to listeners in this part of the . But until further notice I’ll stick to my classic recordings of those two later works whenever I want to hear the music.

Peter Mechen

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