Thought I was buying these to fill a gap and found a gem. You can't say, I believe, who is the best Beethoven interpreter in this remarkable gift to humanity which is the Beethoven sonatas but Kempff is fresh, with deep insight and quite simply some of the readings are the best I have ever heard. Don't worry about the mono recording, it is clear and warm.
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.
The word has to be limpid for these deft, but no less passionate interpretations of these increasingly astounding works of Beethoven by Wilhelm Kempff, one of the great pianists of the twentieth century, and completely at home in this often demanding repertoire. Demanding? Naturally, since this is Beethoven, whose music at its best and subtlest demands an identification with its nuances more than most composers, something Kempff displays in abundance. This isn't rip-roaring Beethoven, but neither is it heart-on-sleeve. It is, I would say, true to the letter and spirit of these unignorably essential sonatas, at the heart of the achievement of this greatest of composers. The German pianist Wilhelm Kempff (1895-1991) was an aristocrat among pianists of his day - and what a long day that was - which I think suits this oh-so volatile yet cannily precise composer, whose pianistic utterances in this ever more astounding sequence of 32 sonatas take the listener from relatively mild climes to the churning, questing peaks of Beethoven's mature, troubled late years. There will be some who prefer a rougher or a mightier, Olympian approach, and I wouldn't blame them at all, but this set has told me most of what I need to know about these sublime works, and for that I am indebted to Kempff and his dedication to playing this music with style, flair and fidelity to what is written. Beethoven is of course so much more than 'what is written' - but these fifties recordings have the stamp of authority, the sound of authenticity, and the titanic spirit of Beethoven in every note.
These recordings by Kempff are absolutely essential listening. They bring out the beauty in Beethoven which many pianists simply pass over: this is particularly true in the early sonatas. You may already own a number of different versions of these sonatas but these interpretations are not to be missed!
No barnstorming Beethoven here - if you are looking for sheer power and showmanship, go elsewhere. What you will get is a profound reading of these masterpieces that makes them sound fresh: even if you have heard them many times before, there is a sense of newness that in my opinion reflects the seriousness and thoughtfulness that was a hallmark of Kempff's approach to whatever he was playing.
This set will therefore stand comparison with any of its illustrious rivals. In particular, if you have the (alas, incomplete) magnificent set by Gilels - Beethoven: The Piano Sonatas - you will very likely enjoy Kempff's introspective reading. As for how this set compares to the later stereo one by the same artist - Beethoven: The 32 Piano Sonatas - in a nutshell, I'd say this one has the better playing and the later one the better recording. So if you are only going to get only one of the two, make it this one. But if you can, get both. And Gilels too, if at all possible.
Kempff's distinctive sound, consistent across all his recordings, makes him the consummate musician in any repertoire. Simply put, this lucid, non-ostentatious playing illuminates Beethoven's great Sonatas and deserves canonical status.
I recently added the latest Paul Lewis complete set to my collection of complete Beethoven Sonatas, which also includes complete sets by Schnabel,Claudio Arrau and Barenboim. Art may indeed be long but life however is definitely too short, so which version do I find myself returning to again and again? This one, for it is as if Beethoven himself were standing in the very room.
If there is a way to redeem the most fallen of angels; if there’s a key to the door that cannot be opened; if there is a way to see past zodiacs to the firmament itself, the means lie within this magic music-box. It’s a teleological statement. You can throw away Paley’s Watch – let it wash out with the tide. It’s no longer needed.
Many things defy causation. Take this performance of the Tempest Sonata. It’s so free of temporality, a second Assumption is in play. To paradise!
To my dying day, I’ll never understand the weightlessness of Kempff at his best, as if playing these monoliths is no more difficult than an albatross in flight or a feather at play on the breath of God.
I don’t think that the question of stereo Kempff v mono Kempff can be settled this side of the Pearly Gates. I need both. One should supplement him in the Waldstein (Gilels), the Appassionata (Richter or Gilels) and the Hammerklavier (Gilels). A dash of Arrau is not going to hurt either. That done, you have the strongest of hands, aces high to the king.
This is strong and steady playing in what is rightly regarded as one of the premier interpretations of Beethoven's Piano Sonatas. More intense and exciting versions of the best-known sonatas can be found elsewhere (the Appassionata is a little too controlled), but as a complete set, this has no equal.