Freddy Kempf – Hammerklavier

Bach, transcribed Liszt
Prelude and Fugue in A minor for organ, BWV543
Piano Sonata in B flat, Op.106 (Hammerklavier)

Freddy Kempf (piano)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 27 March, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Freddy Kempf’s (lunchtime) ‘Hammerklavier’ leapt out of the piano with an unremitting volume and a violent streak – here was an interpretation that seized you by the scruff of the neck and didn’t set you down again until the end of the scherzo.

For a start it was too fast, and the grand opening statement was undefined and left little chance for an intake of breath once declaimed. There was also scant opportunity to absorb Beethoven’s massive structural pillars as Kempf hurtled through the first movement, and even subdued passages such as the second subject were pushed forward with little more than a side-ward glance. As the movement closed the ‘B flats’ were banged out with an ear-splitting volume that was too much even at the back of the hall.

The scherzo fared little better – there was a nervous energy here for sure, but of the wrong kind, and it was littered with ‘odd’ notes. Brief introspection was found, this time in the tonic minor key, but this was short lived as Kempf opted to fray the nerves with a startling contrast of B and B flat at the end.

Kempf seemed often to be on the brink of losing control of the music’s progression. Welcome relief arrived in the form of the Adagio, and here there was much more in the shaping of each broad phrase and attention to detail in the accompanying figurations. Indeed Kempf found stillness, and calm near the end, a brief, stormy interruption failing to spoil the controlled recapitulation of the main theme that followed.

His performance rescued somewhat, Kempf set a dramatic scene for the fugue but then proceeded to take volume over content once more, with each episode becoming a blur of inner parts with treble and bass cutting through more prominently, juddering to an unevenly voiced but nonetheless emphatic close.

The same criticisms could be levelled at the heavyweight opener, in these hands something of a ‘Bach versus Liszt’ rather than a sympathetic arrangement. Kempf’s tempos felt too fast for both Prelude and Fugue, where the sequential passages were heavy and overall clarity was at a premium. With Kempf stabbing out the pedal notes in the Prelude, this felt like an overblown interpretation of an already big-boned transcription, in something of a hurry to cross the finish line.

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