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8.223452 - KEMPFF: Italian Suite / Piano Sonata / Transcriptions
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Wilhelm Kempff (1895–1991)
Italian Suite • Piano Sonata • Transcriptions


Idil Biret gave a recital in memory of Wilhelm Kempff on 22nd November 1991, shortly before his ninety-sixth birthday, in Potsdam where Kempff had lived for many years. The concert took place at the Schlosstheater, Neues Palais-Sanssouci and the program consisted of the piano transcriptions and original compositions of Wilhelm Kempff. The memorial concert was organised upon the wish of the Kempff family by the Potsdam City Council with the support of the German Ministry of the Interior. The following notes on Wilhelm Kempff and his creative work appeared in the concert program brochure and are reproduced here with the kind permission of the author, Dr. Vera Grützner.

There is good reason for the Turkish pianist Idil Biret to offer a programme of compositions and transcriptions by Wilhelm Kempff, with whom she studied in South Germany and in Italy, and for whom she performed in a celebratory concert shortly before Kempff’s 96th birthday in the year of his death. Wilhelm Kempff is remembered by music-lovers as a pianist of the first rank. His career began at the age of six and continued until he was 82, with performances in the principal musical centres of Asia, Africa, America and Europe. He made hundreds of recordings, the first in 1920, with three versions of the complete piano sonatas and piano concertos of Beethoven, in addition to many recordings of music by Mozart, Schubert, Liszt and Brahms.

Kempff started his career in Potsdam. In 1899 his father was appointed Royal Music Director and Cantor of the Church of St. Nicholas in Jüterbog near Potsdam and with unavoidable interruptions Wilhelm Kempff remained a resident until 1945. In 1931 with his colleagues he drew international musical attention to Potsdam, when the German Music Institute for Foreigners arranged master-classes for professional performers in the Marmorpalais. Kempff’s courses were, until 1944, extremely popular. In 1945 he left the city, abandoning his property but retaining hope for a unified Germany and a return to Potsdam. Until 1955 he lived in Thurnau, and from then until 1986 in Ammerland on the Starnberger See and in the Italian town of Positano, which gradually became his home and where he settled in 1986. In spite of his busy concert career at home and abroad, his broadcasts and recordings, he did not give up his concerts in Potsdam, which continued after his departure. In 1956 he established in Positano the Potsdam tradition of master-courses and founded international summer courses for the interpretation of Beethoven. Idil Biret was often with him in Positano.

Less well known is Wilhelm Kempff’s activity as an organist and as a composer. The foundation of his many-sided musical activity lay in his early years in Potsdam. Even before his first recital as a pianist in the autumn of 1907 in the Barberini Palace he made his début as an organist in the Church of St. Nicholas. He accompanied the choir in a concert of the Church Music Society and played the B minor Prelude from the second part of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and was soon employed as assistant organist, carrying out his duties independently. He acquired a large practical repertoire of organ music, learned from his father and his grandfather, Cantor Friedrich Kempff. Later he declared that the art of organ-playing, like that of preaching, could be learned with difficulty, but was rather to be passed on from father to son. Organ-playing was for him a living sermon in music. At the age of nine Kempff was awarded two scholarships at the Royal School of Music in Berlin, for the study of the piano with the Royal Court Pianist Heinrich Barth and of composition with Robert Kahn, a follower of Brahms and member of the conservative Berlin academic circle. In addition he attended school in Potsdam, sang in the choir of the Church of St. Nicholas and played the organ. He saw no contradiction between playing the organ and playing the piano, like his much admired Ferruccio Busoni. His strict piano teacher warned him, however, that the organ would hinder his progress on the piano, advice that he perforce ignored. In 1914 he completed his studies at the Viktoria Gymnasium and in 1916 completed his composition and piano examinations with distinction, winning the Mendelssohn Prize twice over. Thereafter he gave concerts as both pianist and organist. In Sweden in 1918 he appeared primarily as an organist. His piano arrangements of Bach’s organ Chorale Preludes should be seen in the light of this close connection with the two instruments, as well as the free transcriptions of music of the eighteenth century that he published from 1931 in the series Music of the Baroque and Rococo, following the model of d’Albert and Busoni.

Kempff’s ability as a composer was apparent early in life. At the age of six he wrote his first composition, which still exists, entered by his father in the “Red Book”. Various early compositions are in Potsdam or were taken away with him. The entire body of his work as a composer is amazingly varied, including all genres, opera, ballet, oratorio, symphonic and chamber music for various ensembles, compositions for organ and for piano, as well as songs. Unlike the majority of pianist-composers of the past and of today he gradually shifted the emphasis of his work from composition to interpretation; eventually, the pianist prevailed over the composer. In his compositions he avoided incursions into new musical territory. They proceed essentially from melodic ideas, from old German folk-music and the songs and dances of other peoples, with attractive and colourful harmonies in a tonal context. Richly coloured works, evoking a mood, stand side by side with strictly elaborated movements, free rhapsodic writing with traditional forms.

The Ischia Suite, Swedish Wedding Music and Serenata Argentina suggest in their titles a programmatic element. The first is also part of the Italian Piano Pieces, Op. 68, that Kempff published in 1953. His G minor Sonata, Op. 47, is the second of his piano and was written in 1947.

Dr. Vera Grützner

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