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To say that Wilhlm Kempff was among the greatest pianists of the 20th century is to miss the point: his was a unique voice and a living proof that ‘exuberance is beauty’ (William Blake).

Throughout this glorious issue of early recordings dating from 1920-1942 you will hear playing of a magical insouciance, inwardness and sparkle. Here is that tonal chiaroscuro, that nimbus or halo that surrounded a sound balanced (unlike, say, Arrau) essentially from the treble rather than the bass.

By his own admission Kempff later played fast movements slower and slow movements faster (compare his two further recordings of the Beethoven Concertos) but here, in the finale of No 1, he is off with the hare and the hounds, his playing brimming over, as the accompanying essay puts it, with ‘glee’ and ‘sly humour’.

In No 3 Kempff takes a light rather than lightweight view of ‘Beethoven’s C minor of life’ (E M Forster) with an oddly teasing alternative to more robust interpretations in the finale. Yet nothing is less than vitally animated, the explosive close an authentic Beethovenian surprise.

No 4 – the most seraphic of Beethoven’s Concertos – is subtly illuminated from within, and if No 5 (Emperor) is less magisterial than some other pianists, it is never less than eloquent in Kempff’s brilliant, light-fingered way.

Three encores (or perhaps makeweights) spun off with a wonder of wit and dexterity, compensate for the sad absence of the Second Concerto. This album is beyond price.

BRYCE MORRISON Read the full review on Agora Classica


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