Legend has it that Robert Johnson once met up with the Devil in the backblocks of Mississippi and in exchange for his soul, became master of the Blues. I wonder whether Kempff likewise made some sort of Faustian deal; how else does one explain his most unique attribute: the weightlessness of his art?
Kempff is considered to be a Beethoven specialist but there are limitations: no titanism. Other pianists more virile have greater claims in works such as the Waldstein, the Appassionata and the Hammerklavier. But whenever Beethoven turns inwards to address God, Kempff is sovereign. It's the Pianist as Prospero. Perhaps the best illustration of his sorcery is the Paris concert from October 1968 Wilhelm Kempff Plays Schumann: Arabeske, Papillons, Davidsbundlertanze (EMI Classic Archive 24), and Beethoven: Piano Sonatas No. 14 Moonlight, No. 17 Tempest, No. 27 in E Minor. Even the Devil himself - a virtuoso of éclat - must have been enthralled by this Tempest: "we are such stuff as dream are made on, and our little life is rounded by a sleep". The Parisians look utterly mesmerized and rightly so. If a fire had broken out, they would have perished in the flames.
This BBC disc emanates from a famous concert. Much like the grassy knoll in Dallas, it is amazing how many people now claim to have been there on the night.
Kempff is always magisterial in Bach: where else is one to find such sonorous polyphony? The Chromatic Fantasia & Fugue, BWV903, sound as if they are being played by a ghost: they're hypnotically ethereal. The booklet states that they run for 12'12"; I am prepared to believe it but ultimately I do not know: I was insentient to the world for its duration. They're the chief reason to acquire this disc. Kempff's account of Beethoven's Opus 54 sonata and the various works by Schubert might replicate his feats from elsewhere but they're triumphs all the same. In his hands, the F Minor sonata by Schubert, a minor work in the cold light of day, refutes Democritus in its reversal of time; once again, however temporarily, one stands pristine in the Garden. And remember to start breathing at the close of the G Flat Impromtus.
The (stereo) recording is suitably atmospheric.
I do not know what consideration Kempff had to offer up in exchange for the deal; I hope the Devil went easy on him.