The name of Wilhelm Kempff is not usually included in the company of the great Chopin pianists of the past and present. Artists such as Rubinstein, Argerich, Moravec, Ohlsson, Cliburn, and others are far more likely to be mentioned as eminent interpreters of the great Polish composer's challenging music. Kempff, who died in 1991 in his ninety-sixth year, was usually associated with the composers of his own Germanic background. When he tackled Chopin he often generated a stir. This release is a reissue of performances from 1958 that will surely bolster his controversial reputation in this repertory, a reputation of an outsider, an individualist who chose to go his own way and eschew traditional approaches.
His way with Chopin is often understated and fairly lean, though in the Sonata there are sufficient fireworks. Still, even here Kempff is relatively restrained and couldn't be further from the more sumptuous and high-calorie styles of interpretation. And he is certainly no perfectionist: mistakes abound, and you're apt to wonder that another pianist might have done retakes; but this was the 1950s when many older-generation artists were still accustomed to the one-take recording process, though surely Kempff here, in the early stereo era, could have made a second or third cut. No doubt, when he was satisfied he had communicated the spirit, if not exactly the letter, of the score, he moved on to the next piece.
His funeral march is certainly a highlight in the sonata: grim and chilling in the main theme and consoling, yet appropriately icy, in the alternate material; he captures the mood quite well. In the other pieces here Kempff is always interesting, always provocative. If his Barcarolle sounds a bit insensitive, it is not without a thought-provoking yield in its supplanting of elegance with playfulness, of rich-toned intimacy with curt classicism; and if his Fantasie-Impromptu strikes some as an indifferent run-through, his Berceuse, that follows, is quite effective and enlightening.
An interesting reissue, then, but hardly the best playing you'll hear in Chopin. Good notes, but the sound is a bit hissy and shrill.