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A case where the earlier mono version has the edge over the later stereo version
on 11 July 2013
This set of the sonatas dates from the early 1950's and is in mono. This compares with the later stereo remake made in the 1960's. That later set has marginally less spontaneous playing in several of the sonatas and the sound is not really an improvement over the mono set which is remarkably good and certainly capable of delivering musical satisfaction without undue compromise. Indeed, it is arguable that the piano sound is preferable.
The performances themselves are very similar. Having owned both sets for many years, I have steadily developed a preference for this earlier set, fine though the later set undoubtedly is. Kempff plays in such a way as to make one unaware of an 'interpreter' in any interventionist sense of the word. Rather, he seems to simply play the music as it is - in other words, as Beethoven wrote it. This is not as easy as it seems, otherwise there would be countless others to choose from at this level. Nor is it possible to be absolutely sure of what Beethoven intended, especially bearing in mind the developments in piano manufacture since then. However, the illusion remains and seems valid at the time of listening.
To expand a little, it is possible to make some generalisations about Kempff's approach to these works. Firstly he works on a relatively limited range of dynamics and tempo, avoiding the extremes of expression and keeping within the tonal limitations of his piano and the bounds of the generally perceived realms of the Classical period. At no time will the speed of a Richter, the power of an Ashkenazy or the percussive aggression of a Kovacevich be heard. The sense of restrained proportion of a Gilels is closer to Kempff but without the power.
If this sounds so safe as to be without interest then that is to be unaware of the compensating attractions. Although Kempff works within the limitations as described above and keeps within perceived period boundaries, his skill lies in the extraordinary variety of subtlety he brings to touch and phrasing, almost as if it is an alive thing to be constantly cared for and managed throughout each performance. Thus, as each piece unfolds, it is like an act of spontaneous creation, the act of actually conceiving of the work itself. One must remember that Beethoven himself was renowned during his lifetime for his highly developed ability to improvise for extended periods of time with complete musical conviction. This is how Kempff comes over as a pianist and each sonata has its own subtleties and there is progression through the sonatas as boundaries are stretched and move away from the early classical model.
It is not appropriate to enter into a detailed analysis of each work within such a large body of work such as this. However, the above outline of Kempff's apparent approach to this music and some suggestions as to comparisons may be helpful to those considering this purchase.
I would therefore conclude by suggesting that this set has earned its place as one of the long-term reference sets for collectors and as such is certainly well worth some serious consideration as a purchase option.