Freddy Kempf at Cadogan Hall – Goldberg Variations & Liszt

Goldberg Variations, BWV988
Rigoletto Concert Paraphrase [after Verdi]
Tristan und Isolde – Isoldes Liebestod [after Wagner]
Hungarian Rhapsody No.6 in D flat

Freddy Kempf (piano)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 26 October, 2010
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Freddy Kempf. Photograph: Neda NavaeeFreddy Kempf is only 33, but he seems to have been around for a long time. He was BBC Young Musician of the Year in 1992 and caused huge controversy by only being awarded the Bronze Medal at the 1998 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, when many thought he should have shared First Prize with Denis Matsuev. He now lives in Germany. Whenever I have heard him live he has come perilously close to sounding as though he was pounding the piano into submission. Nevertheless, a recent Prokofiev disc displayed rather more sensitivity and it was depressing to see Cadogan Hall was less than half-full for this recital.

Certainly the bizarre programming may have put some off. It really is unbelievable that somebody didn’t tell Kempf that you only play the Goldberg Variations at the end of a concert or as the whole recital, and that you don’t couple this work – in a very short second half – with Liszt at his most extrovert.

The work started with a fairly slow ‘Aria’, with plenty of rubato and ornamentation, but there was little sense of line and flow. In the first variation, violent articulation replaced the opening bars’ subtle syncopation, and the lack of definition and conversation between the hands and parts in the simple canonic form of the second, was disappointing, as it was in the first of the regular canons that follows. And certainly in the first dozen or so variations there was no real sense of commanding logic combined with innate grace and spirituality, which characterises all great Bach-playing. Kempf also seemed to add more ornamentation in the repeats, which was occasionally distracting and there were two instances of added bass octaves.

Yet in the sublime ‘Canone alla Quinte’ that concludes the work’s first half; there was a true sense of repose and intense contemplation. In the short ‘Ouverture’, the rhythm was elusively unsettling, and the short fast variations brought dazzling finger-work and invention. Where before the inner parts and voices in the Canons had been muffled, everything was now clear; there was a real sense of discovery and dialogue and the dance rhythms came to life, with the three-eight meter of Variation XVIII brought vividly to life and XXI sounded – as was surely intended – like an Allemande. Crucially time stood still and the music of the spheres took over.

If Kempf had to play Liszt, then surely the Légendes, or any of the late pieces, and the BACH Variations would have been far more appropriate. As it was the Rigoletto Paraphrase was too loud and aggressive, although the concluding double octaves were electrifying. The staggering arrangement of the ‘Liebestod’ from “Tristan und Isolde” lacked mystery and the huge climax before the epilogue was underpowered. The Sixth Hungarian Rhapsody is a glorious piece of OTT showmanship and it received a powerhouse performance. But more rhythmic liberty and dynamic shading would not have gone amiss. There were two encores, a Chopin Nocturne and Brahms Waltz that were pure and exquisite poetry. Indeed as these and the second part of the Bach showed, Freddy Kempf is a far better pianist in music that doesn’t feed his aggressive virtuoso instincts and it would be fascinating to hear him in Bach’s Partitas.

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