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Kempff recorded 24 of the 32 Beethoven Sonatas at this point of his career on Polydor: the late sonatas are on a separate APR release. These sonata recordings more than complement the two complete sets Kempff recorded for DG, one mono, one stereo. Of the 16 works here, several also exist in pre-war versions, particularly the ‘nicknamed’ sonatas.

The sound is better than one might imagine from transfer engineer Mark Obert-Thorn’s disclaimer that these are ‘wartime pressings made from subprime shellac with a higher than usual amount of surface noise’. De-noising was omitted so as to keep the frequency range of the originals, to fine effect: notice, for example, how the sweetness of Kempff’s tone is there in all its glory in Op 27/2. The louder passages are heard in fine fettle, with minimum distortion. Interpretatively, the prime aspect of this set is its freshness and sense of adventure; while the DGG traversals both have their distinct strengths, what we hear here is the tensile strength of Beethoven through a relatively youthful interpreter who still finds he has the ability to stretch the musical surfaces in ways he would not allow himself in the later sets.

A mark of how the recording industry has changed, perhaps, is that already in the early 1940s Kempff was duplicating repertoire. It’s an indication, too, of the intensity of study Kempff lavished on these scores. Characteristics that run through the set are an awareness of the importance of clear textures and resultant low pedal. Where appropriate, rhythms are sprung and alive (try the dotted rhythms of the finale to Op 31/3).

The second sonata Op 2/2 holds the kernel of Kempff’s Beethoven: the pianist lavishes tender care on the most passing phrases. The drama of the development is superbly held by the recording, with all the detail easily audible. The exquisite touch of the Scherzo and Finale, coupled with a true Beethovenian alignment, reveal an interpretation already at an advanced stage of maturity; Kempff’s 1951 DGG performance, for example, has a more hectoring staccato in the first movement, some lines are more obviously underlined and the tenderness is less. The 1964 stereo remake is more successful, but neither encapsulates the brio heard here.

Kempff is never predictable. He finds more drama than one might expect in Op 14/1; perhaps the source for Op 14/2 was not the best but the first movement is wonderfully expansive. It is Op 22 that offers a set highlight, even surpassing Kempff’s majesterial mono performance, particularly in the first movement; the Adagio pulses with nocturnal secrets.

Again, in the Op 7 Sonata, Kempff is more fluid in this 1940 performance than in the mono DG performance, yet he plumbs greater depths in the slow movement. Opus 7 shares disc space with the three sonatas of Op 10, the zenith of that set appearing as the D major, the Largo e mesto exuding a proper sense of organic growth. The prevailing impression of the famous Pathétique is that of grace.

Consistency is a keyword here (of more recent pianists, perhaps only Buchbinder on DVD equals Kempff in this). The Sonata Op 31/3 is another highlight, perfectly pitched and with this low-pedal finale not in the slightest dry.

This is wonderful Beethoven, lovingly presented, and a salutary reminder of why the interpretations of yesteryear matter so much today. Contrasting Kempff with the more pronounced longer-range vision of Schnabel is a fascinating exercise, and reminds us that multiple viewpoints on this great music can yield equally fascinating results. A mandatory purchase for all piano lovers and students.

COLIN CLARKE Read the full review on Agora Classica

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