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Paul van Kempen studied the violin at the Amsterdam Conservatory, and at the age of seventeen joined the Concertgebouw Orchestra: the influence upon him of the orchestra’s chief conductor Willem Mengelberg, after he had decided to become a conductor, was considerable. During the early stages of his career, van Kempen continued to play the violin, holding the position of concertmaster (orchestra leader) at Posen from 1916, and later at Bad Nauheim; he also taught the violin at Dortmund. His conducting debut came at Oberhausen, where he was made chief conductor in 1932.

Having taken German citizenship in 1933, during 1933 and 1934 van Kempen conducted the Deutsche Musikbühne, which toured throughout Germany, and in 1934 was appointed chief conductor of the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra (the city’s second, primarily symphonic, orchestra after that of the Dresden Opera, the Dresden Staatskapelle). He improved the standard of the Dresden Philharmonic, establishing it as a significant European presence, as may be heard in the recordings of piano concertos by Mozart and Beethoven made with the pianist Wilhelm Kempff in 1941 and 1942. In that year, van Kempen took over from von Karajan as chief conductor at Aachen, staying there until 1944. Both before and during World War II he made numerous recordings for the Polydor label, with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Berlin Philharmonic and Berlin State Opera Orchestras amongst others, as well as with the Dresden Philharmonic.

After the war he was found not to have been a Nazi sympathiser, but initially his appearances in Holland could result in audience and orchestral player disapproval, as occurred at a performance of the Verdi Requiem with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam in 1951. Between 1945 and 1949 he directed the annual conductors’ course at the Accademia Chigiana at Siena, and pursued an active career as a guest conductor. He was appointed chief conductor of the Radio Hilversum Philharmonic Orchestra (also known as the Netherlands Radio Orchestra) in 1949, and as the Philips company began to record for the new medium of the long-playing record, van Kempen was engaged by it to record with both this orchestra and a number of others, including the Berlin Philharmonic once more, the Concertgebouw, Lamoureux, and Accademia di Santa Cecilia Orchestras. He returned to Germany in 1953 on his appointment as chief conductor at Bremen, prior to his death in December 1955.

van Kempen’s recordings are notable for their strong sense of architecture combined with much subtle detail and delicate phrasing, qualities very much to the fore in his accompaniments for Wilhelm Kempff’s first, mono, long-playing record accounts of the five Beethoven piano concertos, in which he conducts the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. His pre-war recordings included a memorable account of Liszt’s Les Préludes, with the Berlin Philharmonic. He recorded Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 with the same orchestra in 1940, as well as the Dvořák Violin Concerto with Váša Příhoda, and the Schumann Cello Concerto with Enrico Mainardi, both made with the Berlin State Opera Orchestra in 1943. Other wartime recordings included symphonies by Schubert, Sibelius and Haydn, all with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra. van Kempen’s post-war recordings included excellent accounts of Tchaikovsky’s Symphonies Nos 5 and 6 and Romeo and Juliet with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 ‘Eroica’, with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. He was a noted interpreter of the music of Bruckner and was awarded the Bruckner Medal in Vienna; however, his only commercial recording of this composer was of the Symphony No. 4 ‘Romantic’, made with the Radio Hilversum Philharmonic Orchestra for the Telefunken label in 1950, while a wartime (1941) broadcast exists of him conducting the Symphony No. 5 with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).

Role: Conductor 
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