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Balakirev, Ravel, Mussorgsky - Kempf

Balakirev, Ravel, Mussorgsky - Kempf

BIS  BIS-SACD-1580

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Instrumental


Balakirev: Islamey, Ravel: Gaspard de la Nuit, Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition

Freddy Kempf (piano)


Partly on the basis of his several discs on BIS, Freddy Kempf enjoys a reputation as an explosive and physical performer but also as a highly sensitive artist. His performance of Chopin’s Etudes received high praise, for instance in American Record Guide: ‘At 27, Kempf has attained something most pianists strive for over an entire lifetime ... This release can justly take its place among the very finest recordings of Chopin's Etudes. The set of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes was equally well received: ‘Kempf captures the essence of Liszt in playing of wistful nostalgia, yearning passion, with arpeggios and cadenzas that shimmer and scintillate’ (International Piano).

The programme on the present release bears witness to Liszt’s contribution to piano writing: three central works in the great virtuoso literature for solo piano with qualities in terms of characterisation and timbre that have led them all to become the objects of orchestral arrangements – in the case of Mussorgsky’s Pictures numerous times. Pictures from an Exhibition was composed in only three weeks in 1874, in a sort of creative frenzy following the death of Mussorgsky’s friend, the painter and architect Viktor Hartmann. Some of the pictures by Hartmann that inspired Mussorgsky have now disappeared; those that have survived can be seen at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. But to search for a direct correspondence between the pictures and their musical counterparts would be pointless: Mussorgsky sought to portray Hartmann’s world more intuitively.

Balakirev’s Islamey was composed five years earlier, and is based on two themes. The first, called ‘Islamey’, is a melody from north Caucasia, and the second is a Tatar melody from the Crimea.

It was long regarded as the most difficult work in the entire piano repertory, and in fact, when Ravel 1908 composed Scarbo, the third movement of Gaspard de la Nuit, he specifically wanted to write something that would be even more difficult. Based, like the other two movements, on a prose poem by the French fantastic writer Aloysius Bertrand, Scarbo is the depiction of an evil spirit of the night, while Ondine describes the futile love of a water nymph for the poet, and Le Gibet a hanged man and his gallows.

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Review by John Broggio - October 9, 2008

This marks the maturation of Freddy Kempf from a great technician to a great musician.

Until now, many of Kempf's recordings have struck a false note - true, they were note perfect but there was a sense that he did not fully grasp the structure or emotions of the music. This disc completely transforms that impression and leaves one in awe.

The Mussorgsky opens the disc and Kempf's viewer is evidently in a hurry to get around the gallery whilst promenading; that said at no point does Kempf wilfully ignore any of Mussorgsky's markings. There is no sense of rushing or lingering over any of the portraits although the "sempre vivo" adopted for Gnomus gives little room for the "tutta forza" specified and this is one of the few episodes that sounds remotely underpowered (this is real nit-picking though!) In Tuileries, Kempf captures a delightful innocence that is completely at one with the music. With a sustained and powerful fortissimo that is never remotely forced, Bydlo is given a restrained power that allows the central section to be given an almost orchestral climax. The chicks have a lightness of touch that seems impossible on first hearing - the music really does trip off the keyboard here in the most delightful manner. The portrait of Samuel Goldenburg and Schmuyle starts off more severely than many but quickly builds up a venomous sense of foreboding which dissipates following another stroll around. Limoges is subtitled "The Market Square (The Big News)" and one can imagine a gossip running round sharing all before getting worked up into a dreadful state and falling headlong into the Catacombs, which are given a reading of gravitas. The time spent observing the dead is characterised by exemplary tremolando playing from Kempf that give a glistening sheen to the melody underneath. Baba Yaga is played in as muscular fashion as could be wished - the playing really is stunning here and any comparisons to luminaries such as Richter are in no way humbling for Kempf. The Great Gate of Kiev does not perhaps start in the grandest manner conceivable but this allows Kempf much more room to build climaxes than others in recent times and he really lets rip in a most exciting way in the closing pages. Wonderful stuff.

The Ravel is notoriously difficult to play but one wouldn't realise that here. From the opening watery pianissimo's to the thunderous cascade of notes at the climax of Ondine, Kempf's playing is at once immaculate, disciplined and refined in a completely different manner to the Mussorgsky that preceded. The tolling bell of Le Gibet is incessant without masking any of the melodic devices employed by Ravel and makes the whole affair rather creepy, presumably just as intended. Scarbo is on another level again but the apparent ease and facility that Kempf displays is spellbinding. One couldn't hope to hear this better played in concert or indeed in the imagination. Electrifying playing and again completely at one with Ravel and utterly self-effacing playing - no hint of a gallery here.

Then, the "encore" and what an encore - for there can be few more crowd-pleasing or thrilling show pieces than Balakirev's Islamey, especially when dispatched with the phenomenal accuracy and dexterity here. Kempf treats the score with admirable respect, indeed some might well wish for a little less than the 100% accuracy delivered in return for a slightly hotter head but there can be few interpretations on disc as accurate as this. Ideally, Kempf might have used a little more sustaining pedal just to blend some runs together and smooth off the odd slight edge in the writing but to hold this against him would be churlish in the extreme. The whole recital sounds so compelling that one could well imagine that this was a single take from a recital but for the completely silent audience - there is no way that the ending to either the Mussorgsky or Balakirev wouldn't have attracted storms of applause!

As for the recording and the state of the piano, I cannot imagine that BIS (or anyone) could be more pleased with the results here; one is in a perfect seat in the concert hall and the piano's tone just glows - credit also to Kempf here!

Like Sudbin's releases, this disc has that "play it again" factor in spades - very highly recommended for any or all of these triumphs of the pianistic repertoire.

Copyright © 2008 John Broggio and HRAudio.net

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