Wilhelm Kempff - piano
Few pianists on record convey quite the impression of actually composing the music while they perform it that sets Wilhelm Kempff's artistry apart. This quality may owe something to his gift as an improviser (Kempff had also received early training as an organist); but it most obviously stems from an intuitive power to identify and state--with remarkable purity of expression and singing grace--the essence of a work.
The recordings gathered in this set (the first of three in the Philips series, chosen by no less an authority than Alfred Brendel) were made in the '50s and present Kempff's nearly oracular stature as an exponent of Brahms and Schumann. (His equally legendary Beethoven and Liszt are some of the subjects of the second volume in the Kempff series.) The late Brahms pieces in particular still seem a revelation. Kempff distills the hard-won spiritual calm of the first Op. 117 intermezzo, for example, with an almost unbearably self-effacing intimacy. Listen to the spacing of silence within the slowly ascending arpeggio that concludes Op. 116, no. 6, for a taste of Kempff's profound musicality. In Kreisleriana, playful caprice and a profound inwardness are each given breathing room, while Kempff all the while cleanly articulates the polyphonic rigor that Schumann weaves into his oscillating fantasy (the account here makes a fascinating comparison with Horowitz's own marvelous interpretation from late in his career). Kempff's great achievement is to bring you face to face with a composer--and these encounters above all will reward you with each listen. --Thomas May