The great German pianist Wilhelm Kempff was one of the Irish pianist John O’Conor’s teachers. Since 1997, O’Conor has presented Kempff’s ‘Beethoven Interpretation Course’ at the legendary pianist’s villa in Italy. Central to Kempff’s reputation are the five Beethoven piano concertos and so any new recordings by one of his pupils will inevitably face comparison. Sadly this comparison is not flattering.
The Concerto No. 1 gets off to the worst possible start; the orchestral introduction is flaccid and O’Conor’s entrance is tentative and uninspiring. Ultimately the entire first movement lacks flair and interpretive sense. (Tellingly it is around three-and-a-half minutes longer than Kempff’s famous 1962 recording.) There is no improvement in the second movement, which lacks passion and sounds mechanical, surprisingly however the third movement is a gem – sparkling, lively and thoroughly enjoyable. Unfortunately this improvement is short lived though, and O’Conor’s performance of the third Concerto, while marginally more even (the outer movements have some moments of quality) still fails to impress.
The Concerto No. 4 places the differences between O’Conor and his famous mentor in sharp relief. While Kempff mixes vigour with control, strength with a delicate touch and an imaginative use of rubato and dynamic variation, O’Conor’s playing is rigid, fussy and lacks imagination. Beethoven would surely have been appalled.