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Attempts to categorise Wilhelm Kempff’s unique brand of pianism are almost inevitably doomed to failure. His distinctive sonority, although by no means lacking in weight and penetration, was based on an unforced, airy clarity, the polar opposite of, say, Claudio Arrau, who passed away just a fortnight after Kempff in 1991. Kempff was arguably closer to another of his contemporaries, Rudolf Serkin (who died the fortnight before), in terms of his penetrating insights and uncluttered vision. A clear-headed fantasist, Kempff tantalisingly combined Germanic ‘innigkeit’ with Italian fastidiousness and Gallic interpretative suppleness, without ever sounding as though he belonged overtly to any particular tradition, despite the almost exclusively Austro-German thrust of his chosen repertoire.

The cantabile basis of Kempff’s playing is apparent everywhere in this magnificent collection. His desire to make the piano ‘sing’ and override its percussive nature is particularly notable in his complete 1960s cycle of Beethoven’s 32 sonatas (the third and last he recorded). Nothing could be further from written testimony of Beethoven’s own playing, which was so physically propulsive that contemporary instruments would buckle under the strain (technicians tried to disentangle and repair broken strings while he continued storming ahead, apparently oblivious of the chaos around him).

Those unfamiliar with Kempff’s essentially poetic approach may find his semantic rethinking disconcerting – at least initially. This is evident right from the opening of the Op 2 F minor Sonata, which exchanges the excited, youthful thrust and passion of Daniel Barenboim’s EMI recording of much the same period for a more considered, tonally varied and dynamically shaded approach.

The best way into Kempff’s magical way with this music is through the positivist major key works – Op 2 No 2 is enchantingly post-Mozartian, for example, Op 10 No 2 disarmingly graceful and the ‘Pastoral’ ravishing in terms of its subtle tonal gradations and expressive ease. These works are key to Kempff’s whole approach: a refreshing, life-enhancing take on Beethoven that reveals pristine musical surfaces often buried under layers of interpretative accretion.

The other major sonata cycle Kempff recorded for DG is that of Schubert, a composer whose lyrical tendency and iridescent musical surfaces were made for Kempff’s tonal lucidity. The physical intensity and (occasional) brooding power of Schubert’s writing, brought so memorably to life by the likes of Serkin and Maurizio Pollini, has no place in Kempff’s musical world. Without ever becoming salonesque, his readings are more redolent of chamber-room intimacy than the modern concert hall. Where some pianists pin their audiences to their seats with the grand opening chords of D959, for example, Kempff fleet-fingeredly invites us in, as though opening a gateway through which unimagined treasures can be viewed.

Hardly surprisingly, the Impromptus and Moments musicaux sound especially radiant here, yet so too a revelatory reading of the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy, which lacks nothing in power but refreshingly exchanges surface excitement for hidden depths. One is made continually aware of what is going on between the notes.

One of the great advantages of having both DG and Decca (which now includes the old Philips catalogue) under one company roof is the ability to cross-fertilise. As a result, Kempff’s outstanding mid-1960s selection of pieces from Brahms’s Op 76 for DG has been completed using Decca’s classic 1953 tapes of Nos 3 and 5-8. In the virtuoso high fences of the Handel Variations Kempff focuses our attention on the infinite subtlety of Brahms’s inspiration, investing each variation with an indelible textural identity. In the nostalgia-laden pieces of Op 117-119, Kempff uncovers tiny details of articulation and musical layering that, far from proving a distraction, add immeasurably to the overall experience.

The set opens with four discs of Bach, including a magnificent 1969 account of the Goldberg Variations. The Beckmesser in some might object to the occasional passing textural smudge caused by the sustaining pedal not being released with absolute precision timing (Kempff was, after all, in his mid-70s), but in the context of this spellbinding performance, such cautionary observations would seem to miss the point entirely. A selection of preludes and fugues from The Well- Tempered Clavier is not in quite the same league (the Kempff magic comes and goes a bit in places), but the divine simplicity of a selection of his elegant Bach transcriptions is required listening.

Kempff’s Chopin (Decca, 1958) has received the occasional critical mauling over the years, and while almost anything played by this keyboard titan is worth hearing, all but the most convinced of Kempffians will most probably pass this pair of discs quietly by, despite some serenely beautiful playing along the way, most notably in the Berceuse, Barcarolle and Ballade No 3.

DG and Decca again join hands in Liszt, bringing together recordings made across nearly a quarter of a century. Where Kempff’s unaffected, crystalline clarity of thought has a largely enervating effect on Chopin, to hear Liszt played so naturally, without a hint of sentimentality or melodrama, makes one listen to these old warhorses afresh.

Moving swiftly onto Schumann, we are back on home territory with a four-disc selection. ‘Connoisseur’ seems a strange word to use in the context of the some of the most urgently spontaneous music ever composed, yet it encapsulates Kempff’s Schumann to a tee, from the ear-tweaking voicing and sonorities of Papillons to the unaffected charm of Kinderszenen. Only when Schumann turns the technical thumbscrews in such as the Symphonic Studies does Kempff sound even remotely under pressure.

Rounding things off is a bonus disc featuring shellac recordings from the 1930s of short pieces by Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann, and some fascinating conversations from the 1950s, spoken (naturally) in German, with a helpful translation in the booklet supplied.

JULIAN HAYLOCK Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Piano International, 2012 - ©Rhinegold Publishing