Ecstatic applause for Freddy Kempf’s first three Beethoven concertos with the NZSO

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra with Freddy Kempf, Piano/Conductor

Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op.15
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op.19
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op.37

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 28 February, 7:30 pm

The NZSO undertook this programme with significantly pruned string resources, making a nod towards  the size  of orchestra Beethoven would have performed these works with himself. The balance and sympathy between the sections was, as always, exemplary and the concert was marked throughout by superb solo playing from wind and brass principals alike, and the impeccable string work that audiences never fail to hear from the NZSO.

Born in London in 1977,  Freddy Kempf made his first solo appearance with the RPO at the age of eight. In the intervening thirty years he has forged a reputation as an outstanding musician who performs to a punishing schedule all over the world.  His formidable dexterity at the keyboard encompassed the composer’s demands with complete aplomb and accomplishment, yet it was Beethoven’s  contemplative writing where, for me, Kempf’s talents most sang. He shaped the opening bars of the first concerto with great delicacy, which made the following tutti outburst a contrasting tour de force that was quite riveting. Likewise the Largo second movement opened with great tenderness that blossomed into a conversation of complete understanding with the orchestra. The Rondo finale was taken at breakneck speed, but both piano and orchestra imbued it with playful lightness, delicacy and clarity.

The pinnacle of the second concerto was again the beautiful central Adagio movement, whose melodic nuances were expressed with exquisite artistry in both phrasing and dynamic. The Rondo finale burst into life with its puckish syncopated rhythms almost gleeful in their exuberance. Despite the breakneck
tempo there was not the slightest loss of clarity or precision from either keyboard or orchestra.

The third concerto was likewise highlighted by the beautifully crafted melodies of the central Largo,
imbued with a clear sympathy of vision between solo and orchestra. The Rondo finale took off at an attractive bouncing tempo that concluded by catapulting headlong into a bold and hectic coda.

Despite the quality of the music, however, and moments of sublime stillness in Kempf’s slow movements, the performance was marred overall for me by the constant intrusiveness of Kempf’s conducting. In theory he was “conducting from the keyboard” as Beethoven was in the habit of doing. But in practice he was constantly leaping up and down between seated and upright, and sometimes
playing high speed runs with one hand while waving the other about in the air.

Nevertheless, the climax of the Final of No 3 brought ecstatic applause from the large audience, many of whom got to their feet. Kempf rightly acknowledged the various section leaders  and instrumental groups, all of whom had contributed so outstandingly to the music making.


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