New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Freddy Kempf’s Beethoven
Beethoven: Egmont Overture, Op.84
Piano Concerto no.4 in G, Op.58
Piano Concerto no.5 in E flat, Op.73 (Emperor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conductor and piano soloist, Freddy Kempf
Michael Fowler Centre
Saturday, 14 March 2015, 7:30 pm
You can’t beat Beethoven on a good day – and this was a very good day, with star performer Freddy Kempf as conductor and piano soloist. It was the second concert in a series of two in which Kempf has played and conducted all Beethoven’s piano concertos was greeted by a full Michael Fowler Centre.
The Egmont overture I have not heard live for a long time, and it was a most welcome opener for the concert. Very full and poetic programme notes, author unacknowledged, gave the story of Goethe’s drama for which the composer wrote 10 pieces of music in all, in 1809. While the text is dramatic, the overture can be heard as absolute music, without knowledge of Goethe’s play about the Flemish Count fighting for independence from the Spanish occupation in the 16th century.
The incisive start immediately created a mood, and the full sonority from the strings grabbed attention. The timpani had a good workout here; Beethoven was apparently particularly fond of the tuned kettle-drums. The music was noble, yet passionate.
Kempf conducted the overture without a score, and the smaller orchestra for Beethoven’s period was arranged with the second violins to Kempf’s right, with violas next, and the cellos next to the first violins. (So Julia and Andrew Joyce got to sit next to each other.) Kempf’s energetic conducting, to be followed by both conducting and playing two concertos, constituted a major physical workout, quite apart from performing all the music from memory.
There was plenty of sound from the players, especially as it reached my ears in the back row upstairs. This position was excellent acoustically, and much better than the stalls for seeing the whole orchestra.
Kempf came on for the Piano Concerto no. 4 carrying a baton, but apart from the first time he stood to conduct the orchestra, he did not use it – indeed, his having to stand rapidly and then seat himself quickly to continue the piano part made it almost impossible to use the stick.
The first movement, allegro moderato, got off to a good tempo, but not too fast, the revolutionary (for the period) opening on the piano immediately demonstrating the great clarity and broad dynamic range employed by Freddy Kempf, despite this being, as the programme note stated, the quietest of Beethoven’s concertos. The andante con moto slow movement featured wonderful contrasts between strong orchestral passages and the delicacy of the piano phrases. The playing of the cadenza, Beethoven’s own, was quite brilliant.
The final movement, rondo, is a jolly romp – cheerful and tuneful. It was taken a shade faster than I am used to, but not excessively so. There was great precision from the orchestra while the piano’s lyrical episodes interspersed beautifully.
Some people in the audience found Kempf’s getting up to conduct the orchestra then quickly seating himself again to play passages, to be a distraction, but I did not. The flow of the music was never interrupted. At any rate, the audience was very attentive. I believe that in my exalted perch I heard the bass sounds better than one does on the ground floor; I heard the cellos and double basses very well, while seeing the entire orchestra added to the interest.
The ‘Emperor’ concerto was not titled thus by Beethoven. Misnamed as it might be, given the composer’s abhorrence of Napoleon’s excesses, it nevertheless stands as royalty among piano concertos. Concerto no.5 features the majesty and the melody of a supreme work of musical genius. However, the greater use of brass and timpani than in the previous concerto confirmed a certain military presence, as does the somewhat swaggering opening.
Intensity and superb articulation were features of the playing, particularly on the part of Freddy Kempf. Perhaps the pace of the opening allegro lost the work a little of its grandeur, but tasteful rubati
soon banished the thought. It was an exciting performance, the noble melodies and the delicious detail, clear and sonorous as they were, provided almost ecstatic listening. The great attention to phrasing, and Beethoven’s marvellous use of syncopation kept both orchestra and audience on their toes, while Kempf’s playing continued to have extraordinary clarity – never the slightest blurring.
The slow movement, adagio un poco mosso, is such a remarkable song of quiet assurance, especially where the upper strings play as the piano gives the soft theme while the lower strings do pizzicato – just sublime.
Only occasionally the ensemble strayed just a little. Otherwise, orchestra and piano were unanimous, even in those passages where Kempf was too busy at the piano to do any more conducting than moving his body in time, to keep everything together.
The rondo: allegro ma non troppo finale relieved us from the emotion of the adagio. At the end, enthusiastic applause broke out, many audience members rose to their feet, and the orchestral players applauded much more than is usual for them. The audience’s ovation went on many times longer than normal. Mercifully, we were spared an encore; that would have removed the mood of elation created by the concerto.
Even for those of us who go to many concerts, this was a very significant musical experience. Bravo, as my neighbor shouted several times.