BEETHOVEN Piano Sonatas Nos.30-32. Kempf (BIS) – INKPOT

Issue 114
This article was last updated on
22 August, 2001

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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No.30 in E major, Op. 109
Piano Sonata No.31 in A-flat major, Op. 110 Piano Sonata No.32 in C minor, Op. 111

FREDDY KEMPF piano

BIS CD-1120
[63:25] full-price

by Jonathan Yungkans
Sonata No. 30 comes off best on this disc. Poised and subtle in approach, with a hesitancy that complements the music well, Freddy Kempf captures the sonata’s meditative yet searching character extremely well, allowing the music to unfold gradually and naturally. The glowing tone and wealth of subtle colors he brings out in the opening Vivice, ma non troppo entice the ear, and he springs the rhythms of the outer sections of the Prestissimo very well, bringing out their dance-like aspects while clarifying the counterpoint and not slighting the quiet mystery of the less athletic passages.

The opening of the Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo could be more rapt but is still effective, and the movement as a whole grows in intensity while remaining songful and heartfelt, with excellent phrasing and interplay of voices. This is one of the finest renditions of Op. 109 that I have heard in some time.

Kempf’s Sonata No. 31 starts out well, with pacing and phrasing as ideal as in Op. 109. With the Allegro molto, challenges start arising. The outer parts of the movement seem slightly clipped, with all the notes played evenly. This plays some havoc with the rhythm and robs the passages of character. If Kempf would slow down just a bit and sculpt these passages instead of smoothing them over, the music would gain time to breathe, heightened drama and perhaps more tonal weight to those crashing chordal passages.

Though matters improve some in the Adagio, ma non troppo, the music is played rather than felt as deeply as it could be, and Kempf’s running breathlessly into the fugue spoils the pensive mood of the adagio. The fugue itself is played too quickly, slighting the momentum and feeling of triumph over the darker tone prevailing in the adagio and recurring before the final measures of the sonata. The repeated chord that heralds those final measures does not build in urgency or tone; they simply repeat, evenly and monochromatically, undercutting any sense of expectation that should issue forth. After the tonal variety in Op. 109, it’s quite a surprise, and the lack of real pathos or drama here and in the Adagio is a severe disappointment.

These challenges exacerbate in Sonata No. 32, which again seems rushed and undercharacterized, with little sense of mystery or tension in the introductory Maestoso or angst in the main Allegro con brio ed appassionato. Though the music is well played, it’s just that-well played, with no real emotional connection to what Beethoven is attempting to express-neither the swirling, almost raging turbulence of the quicker passages nor the pain and groping in the dark of the more ruminative ones.

Similarly, the Arietta does not embody the repose or inward searching leading to transcendence that is really at the heart of this movement. The playing is quiet, beautifully phrased, even amiable-a quality I would never expect here, and if you think it may be out of place, you are probably right. But where is the music really going? Charles Rosen, for one, reaches far more closely and deeply into the heart of this piece in his excellent set of late sonatas (Sony Essential Classics SB2K 53531-2 discs, budget-price).

Despite Kempf’s Op. 109, this disc was a let-down after his excellent Rachmaninov, and with other, finer versions of these sonatas on the market, I cannot recommend it.

JONATHAN YUNGKANS has never sung “Roll Over Beethoven.”

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xxx: 13.8.2001 Jonathan Yungkans

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