“Steinway — the revelation!”
Wilhelm Walter Friedrich Kempff (1895–1991) was an archetypal German musician, born into a family of church organists and cantors. The most spiritual Austro–German tradition, from J.S. Bach and Mozart to Beethoven and Schubert, was central to his sensibility, as was the improvisational facility and registral sensitivity of organ playing. Born in 1895, Kempff grew up in Potsdam, in northeast Germany, though he was studying both composition and piano in Berlin by age nine. Reflecting the essential seriousness of his ambitions, the pianist’s debut Berlin recital, in 1917, paired the virtuosic totems of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata and Brahms’ Paganini Variations. He made his Berlin Philharmonic debut the next year under the iconic Artur Nikisch and went on to perform with the orchestra across six decades. Kempff made his first recordings in 1920 for Deutsche Grammophon, the beginning of a lifelong relationship with the company that would include two complete cycles of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas (in mono and stereo), in addition to an earlier, nearly complete traversal on shellac discs; he also recorded two sets of Beethoven’s five piano concertos and celebrated surveys of Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, plus his own transcriptions of Bach organ pieces. Kempff’s repertoire also included some Liszt and, rare for a German pianist of his era, Chopin. As a chamber musician, he collaborated with the likes of Henryk Szeryng, Pierre Fournier and Yehudi Menuhin, who cherished the pianist’s “supreme integration of the spontaneous on the one hand and the rigorous on the other.” Kempff lived to age 95, though his later performing career was curtailed by Parkinson’s Disease.
Kempff was neither a daredevil at the keyboard nor one to venerate technique for technique’s sake, his pianism marked above all by clarity of tone, judicious tempos, magical soft playing and a famously lyrical legato. Alfred Brendel, a later pianist influenced by Kempff, valued the elder artist’s improvisational manner, writing that he “played on impulse... It depended on whether the right breeze, as with an aeolian harp, was blowing.” The New York Times spoke to this quality in a review of his Beethoven: “A poetic subjectivist, Kempff rolls chords, ‘breaks’ hands, pedals through the bar — all at the service of a sustained interpretive imprint that often violates the letter in search of the spirit, and that often impregnates spirit with visual metaphor.” Kempff toured the world, from across Europe to North America and Japan. In 1934, he arrived in Buenos Aires as a celebrity via the Graf Zeppelin for a tour of South America. Kempff began teaching in the 1920s, in Stuttgart and Potsdam. He then established a school in his adopted Italian town of Positano, giving master classes there until the 1980s, with Mitsuko Uchida, Idil Biret, Gerhard Oppitz, John O’Conor and Jörge Demus among the pianists to carry on his message of subtlety, poetry and humanism. In 1957, Kempff had traveled to Finland to play for the ailing Sibelius, a great admirer. The composer requested the Adagio from Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier,” saying afterward: “You did not play that as a pianist, but rather as a human being.” —Bradley Bambarger