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Wilhelm Kempff

Wilhelm Kempff

Wilhelm Kempff

*25 XI 1895 Jüterbog, †23 V 1991 Positano

Wilhelm Kempff was the son of a Lutheran organist and cantor. He began his music lessons with his father at the age of 4, starting with the violin, and following with the piano. He made his debut in Potsdam at the age of 6. Since 1904, he took regular tuition with Karl Heinrich Barth (piano) and Robert Kahn (composition), who remained his teachers after Kempff's enrollment at the Berlin Musikhochschule in 1914. He graduated in 1917, winning the Mendelssohn Prize for composition and piano playing (he also graduated from the organ class). During this period he was a fertile composer; his works were performed in many German and European cities. In 1918 he appeared at the Berlin Philharmonic, playing Beethoven's Concerto in G major under Artur Nikisch. Between the world wars, he extensively toured Germany, Scandinavia, Turkey, South America, and appeared in France and Berlin during World War II. He made his first appearance in London in 1951 and the United States in 1964, winning wide critical acclaim with his interpretations of Beethoven and Schumann. In 1986 he settled in Positano near Naples, where he organised a Beethoven festival since 1957. He continued to give public concerts until the age of 87.

Kempff's large compositional output includes over 70 opuses, including two symphonies, several sonatas and piano suites, a string quartet and numerous transcriptions (e.g. of Bach works); he played the concertos of Beethoven and Mozart exclusively with his own cadenzas. He was also a renowned chamber musician, playing with Yehudi Menuhin, Wolfgang Schneiderhan, Henryk Szeryng, Pierre Fournier (including a well-received recording of Beethoven's cello sonatas), Pablo Casals, and Mstislav Rostropovich.

Today, Kempff is considered one of the great pianists of the 20th-century German piano school. Compared to fellow artists such as Artur Schnabel, Wilhelm Backhaus or Rudolf Serkin, he created his own, more lyrical and contemplative, less ‘objective' style, with a wider tone palette. He is remembered as one of the leading interpreters of the sonatas of Beethoven, but has also left valuable complete recordings of Schubert, Schumann and the late concertos of Mozart. For a German pianist, his repertoire was notably wide, including the two concertos and Légendes of Liszt, and works by Bach and other Baroque composers.

Kempff began recording for Deutsche Grammophon in 1920 (Beethoven's miniatures). He left multiple recordings of many works; the earliest (monophonic) are usually the finest; live recordings, particularly from his later career, are uneven. Of particular interest are: the complete piano sonatas of Schubert (first such set in recording history) and several versions of Beethoven's concertos and sonatas, especially the freer, more rhapsodic rendition of the concertos from 1953 (with the Dresden Philharmonic under Paul van Kempen).

Kempff made a studio Chopin recording in 1958, featuring the sonatas in B flat minor and B minor, Ballade in A flat major, Scherzo in C sharp minor, Fantasy in F minor, polonaises in E flat major Op. 22 and A flat major Op. 61, the Barcarolle, Berceuse, Nocturne in B major Op. 9 No. 3, and the four impromptus. On this record, Kempff offers a specific vision of Chopin, based on a fluent melody, lyrical emphasis, and an avoidance of dynamic and rhythmic contrasts (except for the dramatic Sonata in B flat minor). This is Chopin with an expressivity akin to Schubert and Mendelssohn. There are also recordings of the mazurkas in F minor Op. 7 No. 3 and C major Op. 56 No. 2, as well as the Concerto in F minor with the Czech Philharmonic under Karl Ančerl.

Wojciech Bońkowski February 2007 

Wilhelm Kempff, Was ich hörte, was ich sah: Reisebilder eines Pianisten, Piper, Munich 1981
Wilhelm Kempff, Unter dem Zimbelstern: Jugenderinnerungen eines Pianisten, Laaber-Verlag, Laaber 1978
John Hunt, Giants of the keyboard: Kempff, Gieseking, Fischer, Haskil, Backhaus, Schnabel, London 1994


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