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Tim Perry
MusicWeb International, December 2011

This year has seen the emergence of ICA Classics as a major independent label with access to some fascinating archive material. This DVD is one of their very best. Kempe was an expert Straussian and his live Heldenleben is, all told, as good as his famous Dresden account, making up in spontaneity anything it lacks in polish. The Dvorak 9 is a revelation—the most impetuous, red blooded performance since Dorati’s famous Concertgebouw recording for Philips. © MusicWeb International

Peter Quantrill
Gramophone, November 2011

A valuable document of past glories, both televisual and musical

The Scherzo pulses with positively Brucknerian energy, and the inflection of the Trio’s sad song is surely influenced by the same part of Schubert’s “Great” C major. That mix of impetuosity and insistence spills over into the uncompromising tragedy of the finale. Kempe never lets you forget that this is a symphony in E minor, like Brahms’s last…

Lawrence Hansen
American Record Guide, September 2011

…this is a superb opportunity to see him making the music with the orchestra he worked with for so many years. You won’t really hear anything much different from what we know in the studio recordings, but the visual element adds something for us who are too young to have seen Kempe in person.

The Dvorak gets a big, bold, yet carefully balanced and paced interpretation. Kempe’s account is plenty animated, but he refrains from stirring up frenzy just to add excitement…the video production is very fine, with exceptionally vivid color…

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, July 2011

How absolutely wonderful it is to see Rudolf Kempe, looking hale and fit, ascend the podium and direct an absolutely magical performance of Ein Heldenleben with his usual minimum of podium fuss, his face mirroring both the music’s changes and his obvious pleasure at hearing it emerge the way he wants, the Royal Philharmonic members playing their little hearts out for him. This is exactly the way I always imagined Kempe in performance, as close to Toscanini’s podium style as any conductor who outlived him, eliciting that magical, transparent sound, ignoring nothing in rhythmic acuity and liveliness, and now we have the pleasure of seeing how he did it.

The sound is still mono but the images are in color. The members of the orchestra look completely rapt in concentration; everything in this performance is focused on the music, nothing on how they look to the audience. A bit dull to watch? Perhaps. But, like watching such similar conductors as Toscanini, Doráti, and Böhm, it amazes one that such exuberance of spirit and a rich palette of colors can emanate from such outward calm and control. For make no mistake, Kempe was a master of coloration. He knew how to make an orchestra “speak.” He knew the secret, now lost to a modern generation of conductors, of how to play music like this so that it sounded not only beautiful but noble, eschewing bombast in favor of the long line, the gradual ebb and flow of suspense, and—I reiterate—that unbelievable palette of colors he had at his disposal. Kempe’s strings had the sound of a choir singing.

In my experience there was only one performance of Ein Heldenleben I really loved prior to hearing this performance, and that was Willem Mengelberg’s 1941 broadcast with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. The Concertgebouw of that time was by no means the technically precise instrument that the New York Philharmonic of 1928 was, in his Victor recording, but there is so much more detail and drama in the later performance that I forgave the roughly played passages. Kempe’s Heldenleben is an entirely different animal. The contrasts are all musical, not as dramatic, but with a flow and coloristic quality that make the score sound more akin to the upward spiral of ascending angels than to Mengelberg’s explosive reading (though they join hands in “The Hero’s Deeds of War”). There is nothing like it in my experience, not even Kempe’s studio recording for EMI, because the studio recording adds the goop of mid 1960s reverb to a performance that doesn’t need it. Here we have, if you will, Kempe urtext, and the result is simply mind-boggling. Listen, for instance, to the way he makes the low bass passage resound with great depth without sounding heavy or ponderous. His legato flow is seamless, the accuracy and crispness of his attacks and releases flawless. It was exactly moments like these that took your breath away when listening to a Kempe performance.

Yet he resented EMI’s pushing him as a Wagner and Strauss specialist. Kempe conducted a great deal more than that, Schubert, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, Shostakovich, and Bruckner among them, and all of them well (he’s one of the few conductors besides Furtwängler who, to me, made some sense of Bruckner’s succession of endings in his symphonies), and here he follows Heldenleben with the “New World” Symphony of Dvořák. Unexpectedly, his performance of this symphony is startlingly dramatic, having almost the punch and drama of Toscanini’s excellent 1953 recording, only with Kempe’s patented transparency. The orchestra swells and ebbs flawlessly and naturally under his guiding hands; an unexpected rubato after the brief flute solo is picked up with tremendous force when the brass and high strings erupt again. Dozens of little details—clipped rhythmic accents here, buoyant legato bridges there—mark this interpretation as unique.

Kempe uses a fairly small baton, even a little smaller than Toscanini’s but not as tiny as the toothpicks that Strauss and Reiner used. His arms are a little further apart than Toscanini’s, but he is only slightly more animated on the podium, his arms moving in graceful arcs. Only a few months after the Dvořák performance came the shocking announcement that Kempe had died. I can remember that moment as if it were yesterday; it grieved me more than you can imagine. He had a very special gift, sought by many but bestowed on few, and we are all the poorer for his untimely passing.

Rob Maynard
MusicWeb International, May 2011

In a letter to his friend, the distinguished French man of letters Romain Rolland, Richard Strauss categorically denied that he was the model for Ein Heldenleben: “I am not a hero. I have not got the necessary strength; I am not cut out for battle; I prefer to withdraw, to be quiet, to have peace.”

Some commentators may have refused to take Strauss at his word, but the uncredited director of this BBC transmission of a 1974 Proms concert is clearly not among them. His view of things is crystal clear for, throughout the whole of the work’s first section, a musical depiction of Der Held (The Hero), he resolutely directs his cameras at the conductor. There is, in fact, not a single second of that opening 4:59 of music when Rudolf Kempe is not pictured on-screen, whether in close-up, middle distance or in long-shot. The corollary of that fact is that as soon as we begin the work’s second section, Des Helden Widersacher (The Hero’s Adversaries), we start to see the orchestra members on their own—but maybe I am now stretching my theory of the supposed relationship between the visual images and the “text” just a little too far.

Even though Kempe’s widow Cordula records in the DVD booklet notes that her husband “thoroughly resented” being pigeonholed as a Strauss (and Wagner) specialist, his affinity with Strauss’s music was well recognised at the time. His record company EMI persuaded him to set down the complete orchestral works on disc. No less a personage than the Queen Mother reportedly gushed “Oh, Mr Kempe, when will you do the Alpine Symphony again?” (rather a surprise, given recent revelations of the sort of music she listened to at home). And, as evidenced in this performance taken from the conductor’s very last concert with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the 1974 Promenaders were quite over the moon with this Ein Heldenleben; critic Joan Chissell reported that this performance elicited “a hero’s ovation and rightly”.

Having never seen Kempe conduct live or on film before, the first thing that struck me was just how physically charismatic and animated he was on the podium. By fastidious, very precise gestures with both his baton and the fingers of his left hand, he coaxes some exquisite sonorities that we can fully appreciate thanks to his scrupulous care for orchestral balance—and to the installation of fibre-glass acoustic diffusing discs on the Royal Albert Hall’s ceiling just five years earlier, successfully reducing its notorious echo.

The outstanding characteristic of Kempe’s interpretation is that, by the application of both sensitivity and sensibility, he gives Strauss’s score the opportunity to breathe. This is, indeed, anything but a brash, bombastic account: the orchestra plays with notable and carefully controlled intensity and Erich Gruenberg’s substantial violin solos are especially affecting—he justifiably gets a special roar of approval from the Promenaders as he takes his bow.

If the Strauss is very fine indeed, the Dvořák is, however, outstanding. Edward Greenfield’s booklet notes suggest that its distinguishing feature is the wide range of dynamics that Kempe applies. What struck me most, however, was the interpretation itself. In contrast to performances that emphasise the score’s elements of cheery Bohemian bonhomie, Kempe’s is a deeply serious account.

The opening movement is characterised by fierce attack and precision—wonderful playing from the BBC orchestra—and Kempe minimises the elements of lyricism in favour high drama. In a similar vein, the second movement’s sentimentality is entirely played down. Its well-known “big tune” (Goin’ home, Goin’ home, I’m a goin’ home / Quiet like, still some day, I’m just goin’ home) is moved purposefully along and the fervent manner in which its central section is played communicates, to this listener at least, a distinctly uneasy feeling of agitation and unrest.

Kempe’s interpretation is nothing if not consistently of a piece for the scherzo and the allegro con fuoco finale are similarly driven powerfully forward. The formers elements of bucolic rusticism are given short shrift and the latter, right from its opening bars, emerges as a real daredevil ride and is terribly exciting—while still very skilfully controlled and crafted.

This New World is one that emerges as a real eye-opener and a very different work from the one that we’re usually presented with. It justifiably receives a huge ovation from the audience.

This new DVD, then, preserves some superb performances. The direction—originally for BBC TV—is expert and thus almost entirely unobtrusive, the visual image—in colour throughout—is sharp and pleasing and the sound is more than acceptable. It offers an opportunity to acquaint or reacquaint oneself with a conductor of the highest calibre, performing live and at the peak of his abilities.

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