Rudolf Kempe – A 12-CD Testament

0 of 5 stars

Not for the first time, Testament pays tribute to this selfless musician – these twelve CDs are available separately and also as a very handsome set on SBT12 1281.

As ever with Testament, the presentation and transfers are exemplary.

Rudolf Kempe (1910-76) – a musician’s musician who came from the ranks; he was principal oboe of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Noted especially for his interpretations of Richard Strauss and Wagner, Kempe’s lucid and long-term way with the German classics always served the composer. Extensions beyond his associated repertoire included forays into British music, not least Delius and Tippett.

These Testament issues include Kempe’s interpretatins of Russian, Bohemian and classic Viennese dance music.

On these CDs, Kempe conducts symphonies by Beethoven, Berlioz, Brahms, Dvoøák, Haydn and Schumann, popular classics by Kodály, Mendelssohn and Rimsky-Korsakov, music by Wagner, the Strauss Family and their affiliates, and enticing orchestral morsels from opera.

Orchestras include the Berlin, Royal and Vienna Philharmonics, and the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Recorded between 1955-1967

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: March 2004
CD No: See text

First off a CD of overtures (SBT 1276; 74’44”) and one of “Viennese Favourites” (SBT 1275; 78’14”) both exclusive to the Vienna Philharmonic and all recorded late-’fifties to early-’sixties in the Musikverein. Lovely sound! The overtures include Mendelssohn’s Hebrides, a slow, atmospheric burn to tempest with much recollection en route; a stylish account of Weber’s for Oberon; a sparkling one of Reznicek’s Donna Diana; and a sensitive version of Nicolai’s marvellous Merry Wives of Windsor. Schubert’s for Rosamunde, plus the B flat Entr’acte and G major Ballet, spins along with charm. So too the Strauss Family and Friends CD, the music taken seriously without denuding its subtle and timeless measures.

Handel’s Royal Fireworks Music (Bamberg Symphony, 1962) kicks off a CD (SBT 1277; 66’53”) that is weighty and ceremonial in non-authentic style – which finds favour with your reviewer! That said, it wouldn’t be difficult to find Kempe’s rendition decidedly heavy, certainly the Bourrée, which sounds like Scherchen’s having a nibble at it! Music by Gluck, arranged Felix Mottl, occupies similar territory – updated adaptation (to the nineteenth century) that works up to a point; a languorous Dance of the Blessed Spirits is the most successful. The 1961 Vienna Philharmonic plays with warmth and discretion, as it does Kodály’s suite from Háry János, Kempe nudging-in the fantasy elements with a light and affectionate touch; if not quite in the Fricsay or Szell league, there’s a lot to enjoy, not least in Kempe’s sense of timing.

Just as romantic is Bach’s D major suite (a 1956 mono recording), which seems more alive than some ’historically informed’ versions; the famous Air is beautifully done. This Berlin Philharmonic CD couples the Bach with five Beethoven overtures (stereo) that find the breadth and line of the music as well as the spirit (SBT 1271; 67’38”).

Now to a comforting coupling of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony and the standard four movements from Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (both RPO, 1960/61). The Brahms is unfolded with inevitability, beautifully played, and enjoys symphonic breadth and pertinent dynamics and detailing; it’s a most compelling account. Mendelssohn’s Overture is elfin and songful, the Scherzo being a rhythmic exemplar and non-rushed to advantage; Mendelssohn played with respect and discernment (SBT 1278; 68’59”).

A pleasing RPO collection (all from 1961) begins with four orchestral selections from Smetana’s The Bartered Bride – the overture not an excuse for breaking the speed limit. The Polka and Furiant sound new-minted and the Dance of the Comedians fizzes. The first of two Kempe recordings of Dvoøák’s Scherzo capriccioso included in these releases proves a little more buoyant and shadowy than the earlier Berlin one, but that has a structural point in its favour (see later). A 26-minute suite (the movements segued) from Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel is simply wonderful – all due to Kempe’s sense of theatre and his affection for this delightfully crafted score (SBT 1279; 58’01”).

Kempe’s 1967 account of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade is beautifully recorded and proves preferable to the overrated Gergiev (Philips) and Stokowski (Cala) versions. Scheherazade might not seem obvious Kempe repertoire, but his is simply one of the finest versions around (along with Celibidache and Kees Bakels, DG and BIS respectively) – Kempe’s ear for texture and detail, and his exemplary pacing, pays homage to Rimsky’s skills as an orchestrator (he requires no altering!) and a conjurer of magic tales. Alan Loveday is the silver-sounding violin-spinner of myth and the RPO’s woodwind is peerless. From 1961, also RPO, is a nicely laconic account of Weinberger’s Polka & Fugue from Schwanda the Bagpiper – always fun! Dvoøák’s Scherzo capriccioso receives a second performance – this one from 1957 with the Berlin Philharmonic; there’s a spring in the step and no lack of vitality or melancholy (Dvoøák’s mother was recently deceased when the work was written). Kempe, unlike in his later recording (afore-mentioned), and also unlike most other conductors, observes the long and important repeat of the ’trio’ section (SBT 1280: 69’54”)

A CD of Wagner with the Vienna Philharmonic (1958) includes a radiant Lohengrin Act 1 prelude and a non-bandstand one of that to Act 3. Two Parsifal extracts, the Prelude and Good Friday Music, are given with a spaciousness and depth of purpose that is totally absorbing, and the Tristan Prelude and Liebestod is of similar distinction (SBT 1274; 59’08”).

Four Mozart overtures and his Eine kleine Nachtmusik lead us into some symphonic repertoire, here Haydn 104: from 1955/56 these early stereo Philharmonia Orchestra tapings include a fizzing Marriage of Figaro, and Nachtmusik is conducted with unforced lyrical import by Kempe, who plays the Haydn in pleasingly weighty style (SBT 1073; 64’29”). A splendid Berlioz Roman Carnival (VPO), lyrical and rhythmically poised, shares a disc with a Berlin Symphonie fantastique that exudes poeticism if not always showing the requisite menace of the Scaffold and Witches’ Sabbath; keenly detailed though and better-than-average bells in the finale (SBT 1272; 62’41”). Schumann’s Spring and Dvoøák’s New World symphonies make for a mellifluous paring, the former lithe and decorative (1955, mono), the latter (1957, stereo) eloquently felt and searched beyond its familiar exterior; the Berlin Phil do the honours (SBT 1269; 71’07”). Finally, and remaining in Berlin, there’s more Schumann, the overture to Manfred (1956, mono) that pinpoints harmonic truth and emphasises the illusory, heartfelt aspects of this astonishing work, and a Beethoven Eroica (1959) that has a Klemperer-like breadth (if not his antiphonal violins): a patrician unfolding of the work’s conflict, lament and resolution (SBT 1270; 66’38”).

All in all, this is a very valuable collection of exceptional musicianship. One may choose individual releases or grace one’s collection with the simple but eminently attractive box.

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