In London Kempe was identified with the Royal Phil., the opera at Covent Garden, and briefly with the BBC Sym., a tenure tragically abbreviated by his sudden death in 1976. British music lovers have long memories, and Kempe's name is still golden in London. ICA, taking up the torch from BBC Legends, has culled a batch of broadcast performances spanning adecade, beginning in the mono era.
Symphony No. 4 in G major
Maida Vale Studios, 14 May 1957
Joan Alexander (soprano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Ruy Blas Overture, Op. 95
Royal Festival Hall, London, 12 February 1967
London Symphony Orchestra
Parsifal: Prelude to Act 1
Maida Vale Studios, 26 May 1965
BBC Symphony Orchestra
The notes inform us that the Mahler Fourth was done as a stand-in for an ill Bruno Walter, and it's a new addition to Kempe's discography. The tape was discovered in an archive in York, and given the scant number of Mahler recordings available from Kempe, I was eager to hear it. The sound is clear monaural with a respectable dynamic range and good balances; there is tape hiss, but it's not intrusive. Of the Mahler Fourths I know, this one begins briskly, although it doesn't go to the extreme that Benjamin Britten does, and there's a certain cool efficiency reminiscent of Szell. I didn't expect Kempe to be this "objective," as literalists are often called. Somewhat distant miking adds to the effect. Even so, the conducting is assured and purposeful.
In the second movement, the mistuned "devil's fiddle" gets lost in the overall texture much of the time, thanks to the same distant miking. the pacing is again rather quick and the interpretation on the objective side. Kempe is aiming for directness rather than a lovingly detailed reading of the kind Bernstein delivered. The rhythmic lilt he achieves is very appealing, however. The characteristics I've mentioned continue through the slow movement, where Kempe interprets Poco Adagio as almost an andante. There's no lingering, and yet the directness of the reading works on its own terms. I do think that Kempe hovers around mezzo forte a bit too much in a movement where the score asks for quieter, even hushed dynamics.
In the finale the soprano soloist, Joan Alexander, is unknown to me, but she sounds clear and idiomatic, even if she makes no effort to sound like a child or to exhibit wonder. By this point I had lost interest in Kempe's straight-ahead reading, which is as charmless as Szell's and much less well played - if you want objectivity, Szell is the better choice.
There are connoisseurs of Kempe's Wagner, and they will be pleased with this live reading of the Prelude to Act I of Parsifal, captured in rather patchy sound that makes the violins sound gritty and somewhat wiry. It's intense and nicely idiomatic, to look on the positive side, and the pacing is much quicker than, say, Knappertsbusch's usual. We end with a vigorous Ruy Blas Over. that is quite spirited. It's also new to Kempe's discography. My copy is a download without liner notes, but unless my ears deceive me, the two fillers are in mono, like the Mahler.
All told, despite the value of getting new additions to the Kempe record, I wouldn't rush out to obtain these performances without being one of the conductor's fans.