Freddy Kempf plays Chopin at the Barber Institute


Freddy Kempf
Barber Concert Hall

Pity the pianist giving a single Chopin recital. All those Nocturnes, Preludes, Études and Mazurkas et al offer enough material to fill a whole series of concerts; so what do you choose?
Instead of offering a mixed assortment for his Birmingham International Piano Festival appearance Freddy Kempf gave us balanced halves, each with a Ballade, Scherzo, Nocturne and Polonaise that roughly reflected Chopin's early and late periods.
On paper it looked very musicianly (opportunities to compare and contrast musical forms, the composer's development - great for a predominantly university audience) and, if nothing else, showed that Kempf is as much a thoughtful programme-planner as he is virtuoso performer.
For this listener, though, subtleties of Chopin's style were less apparent than Kempf's technical prowess, and his ability to create poetry from simple lines and tame texturally complex accompaniments. Ballades No. 2, Op. 38 and No. 4, Op, 52 were wonderful examples of this, their opening melodies quietly joyous with folk-song simplicity, and glittery runs so thrilling they sounded almost like temper tantrums in danger of becoming unhinged as they powered up and down the keyboard.
And the more measured Nocturnes (Op. 27, No. 2 and Op. 62, No 1) hit all the marks for romantic reflection, with elegantly judged tonal nuances and no striving for effect - although the central section of the later example sounded, perhaps, a tad more disruptive than it needed to be.
Kempf was at his most formidably impressive in the fully-fledged showpieces, with a jaunty Grand polonaise brillante, Op 22 thrown off with pin-sharp accuracy and boyish exuberance, and a concluding Polonaise Héroïque, Op.53 that, aside from the occasional unruly splash of notes, bristled with pipes and drums, scales like glissandos, and left-hand ostinato octaves that sounded as fearsome as an advancing army.
For his encore Kempf chose a Concert Étude by the veteran Russian composer-pianist Nikolai Kapustin which, as an example of genteel jazz, was pleasant enough in an uneventful way. A bit more Chopin would, though, have been better.
David Hart

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