Freddy Kempf at Queen Elizabeth Hall – Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin & Schumann

Piano Sonata No.26 in E flat, Op.81a (Les adieux)
Misere du ‘Trovatore’ de Verdi, Paraphrase de Concert
Ballades – in A flat, Op.47; in F minor, Op.52
Kreisleriana, Op.16

Freddy Kempf (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 23 January, 2013
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Freddy Kempf. Photograph: Neda NavaeeI was very taken with Freddy Kempf’s playing in the late 1990s, when he was in his late-teens and early-twenties, but then rather lost the plot with him after the kicking he delivered to Chopin’s Opus 25 Studies at a recital in March 2005. Now in his mid-thirties, the former wunderkind is back on the Southbank Centre’s International Piano Series roster, and my faith is restored. There’s a still a strong element of impetuosity and swagger in his playing, but it’s tempered by an objectivity and maturity that gets inside the head of the composers he’s playing.

Kempf is an overtly romantic musician, and his pianism comes with plenty of mane-tossing and the sort of effortful virtuosity that would give an Alexander practitioner the screaming abdabs, but for the most part his style suited his programme. Whether or not he intended it, Kempf forged a strong link between Beethoven’s ‘Les adieux’ Sonata and Schumann’s Kreisleriana, the Beethoven personal to a degree Schumann would have appreciated and both works sharing a particularly knotty pianism, of the sort that doesn’t lie under the hands.

Kempf missed a trick by not observing the repeats in ‘Les adieux’ – without them it’s rather truncated – but even so he made Beethoven’s penetrating depiction of the psychology of farewells and reunions speak with marked and at times touching accuracy. The air of distracted abandonment in the slow movement flowed naturally from the taut, rather clipped busyness of the first, departure, movement in some brilliantly detailed playing. The explosion of velocity in the finale was impressively secure and for once the music didn’t sound like a soundtrack to a puppy going mad at the return of its owner. Best of all was the coda, with its very Schumannesque blend of relief, affection and quiet transcendence. Imaginatively characterised, this was an enthralling performance.

Just in case we’d forgotten Kempf’s high-romantic proclivities, these were much in evidence in a barn-storming and visionary account of Liszt’s grandiloquent Trovatore paraphrase, in which Kempf achieved a sound in the bass so loud it was virtually pitch-less. Subtle it wasn’t, but the two Chopin Ballades certainly were. Kempf didn’t over inflate the scale of these two rhetorical pieces, and he went on to give them a directness of expression, finely regulated phrasing and touch, and a clarity of articulation thoroughly geared to their particular type of drama.

Schumann’s big piano cycles can be very tricky to bring off, Kreisleriana especially so, the eight pieces of which do not have a specific narrative beyond a sequence of moods evoked by E. T. A. Hoffmann’s tales of his fictional composer Johannes Kreisler. Kempf in general seemed right inside the elusive spirit of Schumann’s characteristic mix of naivety, fantasy and intimacy, all communicated with refreshing candour and an incisive ear for the sheer eccentricity of some of the music. The caressing privacy of the fourth piece, the gnomic brilliance of the fifth, the affecting simplicity of the second with its two contrasting intermezzos – all came together in Kempf’s compelling realisation of Hoffmann’s and Schumann’s fantastic creation, and there was plenty of licence for Kempf’s audacious brilliance, as witnessed in the torrential fugue of No.7 and the angular syncopations of No.8. There were times when Kempf could have been more generous with his Yamaha piano’s singing tone but otherwise this was a satisfyingly complete performance.

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