English pianist Freddy Kempf has built a large and loyal fan base here since making his Australian debut performing the five Beethoven concertos with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra in 2005. Top of the list is Yarmila Alfonzetti, curator of the excellent Utzon Music Series at Sydney Opera House, who describes him as her favourite pianist, whose playing sings to her heart.
Freddy Kempf. Photo © Denis Bald
This is why she booked him to open her 2019 series a mere three seasons after he gave a stunning double recital in the same room. For the first of those he had chosen a program of works by Tchaikovsky and for this return recital, with a backdrop of the sunlit harbour through the Utzon Room’s wall-length window, he revisited the same country in what could be described as a musical Russian arc.
Starting with Sergei Prokofiev’s surging romantic first sonata and ending with Rachmaninov’s second sonata, the selection touched on the turmoil of war and influence of jazz on its circular journey.
The son of a German father and Japanese mother, London-born Kempf was cut out for the concert stage from an early age. Indeed the piano is part of his DNA as he is related to the celebrated German virtuoso and Deutsche Grammophon mainstay Wilhelm Kempff.
Now 41, Kempf has paid tribute to his first main teacher, Ronald Smith, who took him on as a schoolboy from the age of six and who “really gave me my hands, the way I play”. That technique combines highly charged energy and attack, a penchant for risk taking and a keen sense of form and poetic expression over a wide and varied repertoire.
For this recital Kempf hit the stage running – almost literally – attacking the passionate left hand descending figures and the skittering right hand chords in a breathtaking explosion of energy, illustrating his wry observation that the 18-year-old Prokofiev achieved in this eight-minute single movement work a degree of romanticism that Rachmaninov battled all his life to achieve.
Thirty-five years later Stalin’s Russia was at war with Germany and Prokofiev was in an artists’ retreat writing his three “war sonatas”.
The last of these, the Eighth Sonata, traces an arc which Kempf said he saw as an opening which expressed the composer’s love of the countryside before the destruction of war; then the destructive building of factories and, in the slow middle movement, a soldier’s nostalgic return to his home, followed by the horrified reaction to the war and a subsequent, ironic empty tribute to the Soviet victory.
After a quick rehydration break – “I’m getting old, I’ve turned 40” Kempf quipped – there was a welcome change of mood with three pieces by a little known Russian who Kempf predicts we will be hearing more of in the future.
Born in 1937, Nikolai Kapustin started studying piano at the Moscow Conservatory and even composed a juvenile sonata before becoming exposed to the music of the jazz big bands of Count Basie and Duke Ellington. Still alive and composing, he has amassed an enormous repertoire of works, which transcend the boundaries between the classical and jazz genres.
Kempf chose three of Kapustin’s Concert Etudes Op. 40 – a prelude that blended Leonard Bernstein’s rhythmical exuberance with Art Tatum-like runs up and down the keyboard, followed by a sophisticated Gershwin-like intermezzo and a dizzying moto perpetuo finale.
Kempf then brought the program full circle with a transcendent performance of the original version of Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata.
As Alfred Brendel wrote of attending a concert by Freddy Kempf’s relative Wilhelm, “You … would take something home that you never heard elsewhere.”
Freddy Kempf performs at the Perth Festival on February 17