★★★★★ Kempf’s stunning double bill mixes Tchaikovsky with Chopin and Rachmaninov.

Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House
October 9, 2016

Tchaikovsky’s piano music has always posed problems for concert pianists. There’s the First Concerto, which everyone knows, if only for its famous ringtone opening; there’s the Second Concerto, which even now is rarely heard outside of Russia; a few Schumannesque miniatures and then there are a brace of sonatas, including the Grand Sonata in G Major, which again you’ll be hard put to find on a concert programme.

English pianist Freddy Kempf put it in a nutshell when he introduced the first of two back-to-back recitals for the Utzon Series at Sydney Opera House. Playing a passage which relies heavily on one note repeated several times, he said, “This would work perfectly for an orchestra, maybe with French horns repeating the note, but for the piano it doesn’t work.”

At another point in the sonata Tchaikovsky has the pianist play a mysterious chord pianissimo in the bass, only to demand an enormous crescendo seconds later at the top of the keyboard. “How do you do that with a piano?” Kempf asked with a wry shrug.

But despite the work being one that demands a lot of interpretation and ingenuity from the pianist, this was a splendid and satisfying opening to Kempf’s double feature recital.

The sonata does include some exciting moments of Tchaikovsky in full blaze which Kempf, just back from a tour of Siberia, brought to vivid life. Also much in evidence was Tchaikovsky’s penchant for dance rhythms. As one Russian composer rather unkindly remarked to Kempf, “Tchaikovsky! It’s all ballet!”

Kempf’s frequent visits to Russia also helped his understanding of one of the composer’s best-loved piano works, The Seasons, which opened the recital and which were written in monthly instalments for a literary magazine (Tchaikovsky added the month names later).

These miniatures have all the charm and variety of Schumann’s more famous sets and include a festive carnival (February) and a lovely melodic lark song (March) – although this lark fails to ascend to the heights of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ orchestral piece.

Kempf is a witty, charming and urbane communicator and a generous performer – both recitals got an encore, Chopin’s Nocturne, No 2 Op. 9 in E Flat in the afternoon and the Adagio cantabile from Beethoven’s Pathetique sonata in the evening. He’s also incredibly focused and alive to all the nuances and structural complexities of the works her performs.

Throughout the recitals he would compose himself between movements or pieces, staring out through the Utzon room window to the Harbour, awaiting the right moment to start the music.

For the evening recital there was no doubt that the composers and works were meat and three veg for any self-respecting piano virtuoso.

Chopin’s Third Sonata, though less popular than the Funeral March No 2, is structurally and artistically the best of the three. Kempf said that every serious piano student studies and tackles it, but he has only revisited it recently “now that I’m getting older” (he’s 39!). 

Kempf brought out the glorious complexities of the first movement with its quick switches of mood, tempi and wonderful melodies. Here Chopin seems to have almost too many ideas. The short scherzo was molto vivace beneath Kempf’s hands (these were reflected in harbourside window if I leaned forward in my chair behind him) while the largo built magnificently before floating out like a splendid ship nearing its destination.

Rachmaninov modelled his Second Sonata on his beloved Chopin’s Second, though he later chopped it back to make it the same compact length. Luckily his publisher conserved some copies of the original and this was the version that Kempf performed.

This work is a powerhouse way to end any recital, let alone a double one, yet Kempf still had the stamina for an encore. The gentle and deceptively simple Beethoven movement acted as a welcome balm after the tempestuous flurry of thunderous notes and crashing chords of the Russian warhorse.