Schubert's Piano Sonatas essentially are rather private and occasionally introspective works. They are more Wigmore Hall than Albert Hall and perhaps this is one reason why they are not so often included in public performances but "Hausmusik" these works are not.
Elliot Richman (in an earlier review to be found at Amazon US) has said "Modern players, despite their steel fingers and elephantine endurance and machine-like (sometimes machine-gun-like) techniques, stand to learn a lot from this old master's art." How true! Similar exemplars of Kempff's less frenetic approach include Clifford Curzon, Friedrich Wuhrer and Walter Gieseking. Perhaps in some measure it is appropriate that these Sonatas are bypassed by a few of today's heavy hitters on the international recital circuit for these intimate works do not respond well to modern robotics. I am reminded of Rosalyn Tureck's observation: "I have seen a diminution of passionate involvement in the art of music and I have seen a crescendo in passionate involvement with careers".
None of the Sonatas was publicly performed in Schubert's lifetime. This is a sad quirk of history and certainly not a reflection of their musical worth. After all, Beethoven had thirty of his Piano Sonatas published posthumously but in my view these lovely, often haunting Schubert gems are deserving of an appreciation very much wider than they seem to have; certainly beyond the B flat major and a couple of others which are better known.
Wilhelm Kempff's performance here is to his customary and uniquely high standard of interpretation and empathetic treatment; that alone makes this set a "must buy". Whilst the recordings can be a trifle woolly in places and probably would benefit from the digital magic which Deutsche Grammophon successfully has applied to some other older performances, the quality is entirely acceptable and any shortcomings are in no sense obtrusive.
I adore these pieces; it is very evident that Wilhelm Kempff does too.
My greatest disappointment was not hearing Kempff live. I had tickets for a Sunday afternoon recital he was due to give at London's Royal Festival Hall late in his career, and it was only after taking our seats I discovered he had cancelled: we heard Shura Cherkassky instead. He was good - but I so wanted to hear Kempff!
These recordings were made over 4 years in the pianists late 60's/early 70's. The technique is still good - though there is the occasional splash [as in the last movement of D.784]. But their chief value is that Kempff allows us to hear Schubert as his friends must have heard him when he first played them in private. There is nothing at all flashy about the performances, no concert-hall projection, just intimate music making that gets to the heart of these elusive scores. Here we get 18 of the 21 sonatas which survive either complete or as fragments. Missing are sonatas #7 - D.567, #9 - D.571 with D.640 and D.570 i&ii, and #11 - D.613. Those unfinished by the composer are left as torsos, without any moderate [Badura Skoda] or radical [Tirimo] re-constructions and conjectural completions.
There are pianists who play these works with greater [often misplaced] bravura: but none, I suggest, who get to the heart of the music with such directness and selfless simplicity. These are performances to hear and hear again; and they warm the heart as few others can.
Edit: In a recent survey of all available recordings of Schubert's last sonata [D960] for 'Gramophone' magazine, Bryce Morrison chose Kempff's recording as the finest of all. [Kempff, incidentally, includes the first movement exposition repeat which many pianists omit.]
I agree with other reviews that these performances are affectionate and on the whole gentle, though the music sometimes gets very violent, notably in the second movement of D959. I had previously known little apart from the last 3 sonatas, and was introduced to a wealth of lovely lyricism. My only caveat is that I find the tuning just a shade iffy. Is this just the imperfections of equal temperament (presumably what was used, given Schubert's key changes, e.g. sliding from Bb to Gb and back, then to f# in D960) or is it recording quality c. 1970? Neither, I think, as I have satisfactory recordings of the same period (Brendel playing Impromptus, Barenboim playing Beethoven). So that leaves faulty tuning of the piano, esp. in the upper regions). The irritation is slight, and may not trouble others, but I'm surprised that Kempff put up with it. Or was it what he wanted?
This box of discs contains the wisdom of many years of study of the sonatas. Kempff was one of the most magical of pianists and again and again this comes through in these works. There are other ways of playing them and there are probably better individual performances to be found in some cases. But as a set this takes some beating
As Wilhelm Kempff himself writes, in the short essay contained in the booklet of this CD collection, "Most of [Schubert's] sonatas ought not to be subjected to the glaring lights of huge concert halls. They are confessions of an extremely vulnerable spirit, or more correctly monologues, often whispered so softly that the sound does not carry in a large hall (Schubert reveals his innermost secrets to us in pianissimo)." Although not obviously technically the most challenging to a virtuoso, the sonatas require immense imagination in interpretation. This collection contains the kind of remarkably personal performance that characterises Kempff's interpretations of piano works of classical and romantic styles. Having come to them admittedly late in his career, Kempff nevertheless has penetrated deep into the world of Schubert in these sonatas, and displays an astonishing understanding of the man in these recordings. He takes his time over the lengthy, deceptively simple phrases, increasing our awareness of Schubert slowly, drop by drop, falling from the keys in a mesmerising, incredible, seam of music. The piano sonatas represent Schubert's struggle away from his great predecessors, particularly Beethoven. His difficulty in coming to terms with not only their style of composition - intensely dramatic - but also their ideas of sonata form is, perhaps, illustrated in his numerous unfinished sonatas. These have only lately come back into public awareness, having been previously butchered by publishers. In the context of his other piano works, however, they have the potential of giving insight in Schubert's development as a great Romantic composer. Although he was still a classical composer - form-wise, even conservative - his innovations are in harmony, texture and theme groups that are evident in his larger-scale works such as the later sonatas. The sound quality from these predominantly late1960s recordings is clear and clean, with a good acoustic sense of the room(s) they were recorded in without implying an inappropriately daunting space (see Kempff quote at top of page). This set offers a truly personal and intimate insight of Schubert at his most raw and vulnerable by one of his seminal interpreters. At £40.99 for seven CDs of a seminal Schubert pianist and an excellent booklet, this set is, I think, wonderful value.
Time defies explanation. Anyone who thinks that it can be encompassed with flimsy words such as seconds, hours and days is an Epsilon at best. Kempff in Schubert is the fearless Mariner of this mysterious current. His D 960 - as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be - is a masterly illumination of 'heavenly length' but in a way that can only be experienced, not explained. Forget the notes and bars: when does it really begin and end? I do not know. It's unfathomable. Here is the bird; this is the key.
Here are some thumbnail sketches:
D 960 - as above: will never be surpassed. It was not recorded in the usual sense with microphones in a studio - its origin is sub specie aeternitatis.
on every level this is a fabulous box set. We get the complete set of Schubert Piano Sonatas. We get the complete recordings of these Piano Sonatas by the great Wilhelm Kempff. We get all this on seven CD discs all housed in card sleeves and all contained in a very slim box that is about an inch thick. The set has so much going for it and it is nicely presented here. The recordings were made in the late 1960s and the ADD digital remaster offers great sound and balance. There is slight tape hiss but nothing to worry about especially when you balance that out with the great performance by Kempff. Kempff offers a warm and engaging interpretation of the sonatas and it is clear that he fully feels and understands them. Having worked through the box set twice now I can say that there is a great sense of connection not only with Schubert but also Kempff in the atmosphere of the recordings. This is a quality product and one to treasure. You cannot go wrong.
Superb value! Wilhelm Kempff is one of the all-time great pianists whose strengths make him the ideal Schubert interpreter. He is utterly unshowy, with a captivating blend of precision, sensitivity and spontaneity. He is perfectly attuned to the meditative, inward strain of many of Scubert's piano sonatas, whilst doing full justice to the Sturm und Drang and sudden explosions of his middle-period work. My only reservation is that the recordings are in reverse order, with the latest work at the start of disc 1, and the earliest at the end of disc 7. If, like me, you like to follow the development of a composer's art from early works to later, it's a faff having to go to the last n tracks of the last disc and work backwards, but well worth the effort. I found that coming to Schubert's piano sonatas after having listened to Beethoven's 32, I had to accept that Schubert is not Beethoven and what he has to offer requires different expectations.
I have listened to and loved a number of 'complete' Schubert piano sonatas over the years. For some reason I came to this one last, indeed only because a friend raved so much about Kempff's Beethoven that I felt that I should hear this... Indeed I should! Kempff's Schubert is very much like his Beethoven... Passionate, funny, humane, unique, gentle, creative. I'm sure a pianist will come along one day who will do more justice to these pieces than Mr Kempff, but it may well take a hundred years! It is only in Kempff's recording that I really feel that I understand the reason of these pieces. Other pianists such as Mitsuko Uchida certainly understand this 'reason,' but none are able to perform them with quite the same amount of passion, in my humble opinion. For certain individual sonatas I can think of recordings that I prefer, indeed that I live by. However, for the complete cycle I think that Kempff is the king. The CD shows a wintery landscape with fences. That is such a good visual image of these pieces but it only shows half of the picture. Underneath it all should be a warm glow, unending, hopeful, divine. Really, one of the great 'complete' recordings of the 20th century.