This disc is a very old friend. I even remember the original review I read, probably in the Gramophone magazine, in about 1980, which was along the lines that hearing Kempff play these pieces had completely changed the opinion the reviewer held of Liszt's skills as a composer. There's no doubt that these are amongt Liszt's finest keyboard compositions, and surely little doubt that it's hard to play them as exquisitely as Kempff does. The three Petrarch Sonnets (transcriptions of the original songs which paradoxically acquire greater poetry in the pure piano version) are particular favourites. If you have reservations about Liszt thanks to hearing some of his more bombastic self-indulgences, put them to one side and find time to buy and listen to this. For me, always magical. I gave two copies to friends for Christmas.
These recordings, taped in 1974 and now reissued for the composer 200th birth anniversary (1811-2011), are simply stunning. The terms used in the liner notes are absolutely appropriate to describe how Wilhelm Kempff interpreted the Liszt composition in this disc: unforced lyricism, reflective eloquence, serene nobility, quite joy, unalloyed naturalness, nothing is exaggerated, yet nothing is bland, an overwhelming impression of a sublime combination of simplicity and serenity. The remastered sound is natural and warm with the spacious ambiance of the recording location (Beethovensaal in Hanover) beautifully captured. If you love classical piano you simply can't miss this release, even if Liszt is not your preferred composer. Totally recommended!
It is good to be able to welcome the return of these incomparable performances back to the catalogue. When the original LP was first issued, the Gramophone reviewer commented that, while he had long admired Liszt, he had never before actually loved him until he heard this recording. Indeed, anyone who is suspicious of Liszt should hear it, and will hopefully undergo a similar 'conversion'. This is I think the most desirable single Liszt CD ever, played with Kempff's customary humanity, fluency and insight.
While one might regret the absence of the Dante Sonata, the only piece from the Second Book of the Annees de Pelerinage not included here, the first three pieces [starting with an incomparable Sposalizio] and the three Petrarch Sonetti are complemented by the ravishing Gondeliera from Venezia e Napoli, and the Deux Legendes - St. Francis of Assisi preaching to the Birds, and St. Francis of Paola walking on the Water. Here again, Kempff turns pieces that are sometimes presented as vehicles for flashy display into warmly human and musical experiences. By no account to be missed by anyone who cares for great piano music and great playing.
This is one of the last recordings that Kempff made before he deferred to Father Time - and it rivals anything that he had accomplished hitherto. As if communing with 'mere glimmerings and decays', Kempff saturates each movement with vision. Considerations as mundane as the recording quality, textual variants or technique are soon forgotten. In Kempff's hands, this is Pilgrimage - and the two Franciscan pieces seamlessly integrate into the journey. Deutsche Grammophone has a number of showy pianists on its books, but could any one of them, for all their technical prowess, match the alchemy of Kempff in this repertoire? We know the answer to that (rhetorical) question . . . . .
One is left regretful that Kempff did not simultaneously commit the Dante Sonata to disc, to say nothing of Annees de Pelerinage I & III. Still, we must be grateful. Make haste.