Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Of Genius and Genuflection—Freddy Kempf's Beethoven

Guest review by Lindsay Perigo

"I love sport, so continue to jog religiously and do strength work too. I've also more recently started to work on my swimming as it's something I was never very good at—and I'm still determined to be able to attack any kind of black (ski-)run one day. I think a secret ambition of mine is to do the Ironman one day."

So said ace pianist Freddy Kempf in my interview with him in the lead-up to his playing/conducting of the five Beethoven Piano Concertos with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. The series is called, "Freddy Kempf's Beethoven." After its first outing, at Wellington's Michael Fowler Centre last Saturday, February 28, I greeted him by saying, "Well, Maestro, you said you wanted to do a triathlon; I think you just did!" If three gruelling concertos in a row where the aesthetics are matched by the athletics constitute a Triathlon, he certainly did! And he was a winner.

imageFrom what seemed to me like preposterously short rehearsal time (but I'm assured is normal), with a conductor/pianist barely off the plane from the other side of the world, came ... perfection. Going into the concert, both orchestra and conductor/soloist were of the view that it could go either way; in the event, it could hardly have gone any better. The precision, cohesion and empathy between orchestra and soloist/conductor (whom many of the musicians couldn't see), was miraculous, a tribute to the cunning plan hatched in advance between Freddy, section leaders and the Concert Master. Afterward, orchestra members were fully aware of the enormity of the feat that had just been achieved, and where the main credit lay: "Very, very few soloists who've been down here," one observed to me, "could have pulled that off!"

Concertos 1, 2, and 3 showcase the evolution of Beethoven from incipient to full-blown Romanticist. No. 2, actually written first, could be Mozart or Haydn in drag—regally splendid, but still steeped in formalism; by No. 3 we see the unambiguous imprint of Beethoven's distinctive personality, pointing the way to a century in which that kind of expressiveness pervaded and defined serious music. Romanticism ruled. The composers' own world-view and introspections; their personal values; their loves, fears, joys, sorrows, laughter and tears, humour and horror, exaltation and despair ... all these and more were given unprecedentedly free rein during this period. This was "Music of the Gods," and Beethoven the first god.

While bringing out the oft-overlooked humour in Beethoven, Freddy Kempf and the NZSO gave the sublime sorrow of the second movements its due, and more. The Largo from the 3rd in particular was almost unendurable in its sad uplift. My companion for the evening, who likes to consider himself a "Bah! Humbug!" sort of chap immune to such blubbering balderdash as weeping, was ... weeping. This is the movement that Freddy says nearly caused the Emperor (No. 5) to be replaced by No. 3 as his personal favourite. His inspiration was the Bernstein/Zimerman performance; on Saturday night, he was right up there with them. The palpable hush all around the hall (apart from the occasional stifled sob) all the way through, was testament to the exceptional magic the Maestro was weaving.

On a technical level I am persuaded that much of that magic lies in the left hand—or should I say, the fact that Freddy gives the left hand the attention it deserves. His right hand is, of course, just as admirably precise and expressive, but where some pianists might underplay with the left, Freddy, where appropriate, drills away with it so you can't help but notice! An example is the section beginning about six minutes into the 2nd movement of the No.1. Kissin does something very similar—until I heard his version, I was inattentive to what the bass was up to. Obtuse of me, no doubt, but with Kissin or Kempf such inattention is impossible.

Sublime sorrow made way in each case, of course, for the rollicking rapture of the third movements. Frenetic Freddy lunged and leapt, twirled and trilled, coaxed and cajoled, thundered and thrilled; the result was that "rapture" was undoubtedly the crowd's takeaway mood. The night after the concert, I had the honour of dining with Freddy. After three hours of fevered conversation, we walked along Courtenay Place towards our respective destinations. Although he was bespectacled and dressed casually, he was recognised by a Malaysian lass who had attended the performance. When she recovered from the shock, she ran after us. Breathless and red-faced, after double-checking that he was indeed Freddy Kempf, she snapped a "selfie" with him. The look on her face as she beheld it eloquently bespoke the unforgettable joy of the previous evening.

I forgot during dinner to ask Freddy about his use of the baton. He had used it for some of his conducting but not with all of it. I was still curious as to why, so I asked him via e-mail the next day. His reply was so interesting I'd like to quote it in full, with his permission:

My personal philosophy means that my use of the baton depends on the orchestra and its chief conductor. If the orchestra’s chief conductor uses a baton then I shall aim to do so to – if not, then I discard the stick. Simple as that. Pietari Inkinen uses a baton – therefore so did I. However, during the concerti I only use the baton during the opening tuttis of each concerto’s 1st movements – and the overture too.

My thought is that the baton triggers a slightly different reaction to the hand. The hand “asks” for a response or an action whereas the baton “indicates.” I think the baton eliminates one tiny process of the brain – it shows the players when the “energy” is there – whereas the hand "suggests." And this is also affected by what the orchestra is most used to. The other consideration is that the baton is a less obvious skill to learn – a little like a manual gear shift as opposed to automatic – in that if you don’t start with the baton then there’s a danger that one will never learn how to effectively use it. The most obvious difference would be at the start of a movement – where the baton will get a more mechanical and instant response.

The final consideration is just to make things easier to remember for myself. Holding the baton “reminds” me of my conducting duties – in which sense I just need to remember when to put the baton down, and then my mind realizes that I will need to think about playing the piano too.

NZ audiences yet to attend "Freddy Kempf's Beethoven" need not now be puzzled by any seeming batonic inconsistency!

One final thought occurs to me as I wrap up these reflections: while rapture was the dominant emotion at the concert, there was a level of frustration at having to observe the no-applause-till-the-end protocol before giving voice to that rapture. Evidently I didn't succeed entirely—at the end of the first movement of the first concerto a cadaverous-looking person to my right informed me I had been moving too much. Now, I do tend to “swayn” (that's a combination of swaying and swooning) a little to such glories as we're discussing here, but I always stay within my space and can't imagine my swayning to be so conspicuous as to be a distraction. (I find it distracting that so many people can manage to do Sphinx impersonations when in the presence of such pulsating beauty. I wonder how Mr Talking Corpse would fare in Italy!) In any event, it appears that the aforementioned No Applause Between Movements protocol, far from being the venerable and noble institution it is touted as, is quite recent in origin—it didn't take hold until well into the twentieth century, and then for ignoble reasons. It certainly didn't obtain in Beethoven's day, when applause not only between but during movements was the norm. From the outset most leading musicians considered NABM nonsensical. Many audiences are now openly flouting it—to the delight of many musicians. Here's pianist Stephen Hough:

The reason why humans hit the palms of their hands together if they like something is probably buried in the mists of pre-history. Some audiences stamp too, or scream, or whistle, or shriek … (or occasionally boo). In Holland there is the famous 'standing ovation,' seemingly given to all, regardless of quality or level of appreciation. There are slow, rhythmic handclaps too, although with a positive connotation in musical settings, unlike politics. All of these responses by an audience have to do with their participation in what is happening on stage rather than with boosting the egos of the musicians. To experience passively something which is moving, touching, exciting or thrilling demands some active outlet if we're not to burst.

There are certain movements in the repertoire that absolutely demand applause. In piano concertos, off the top of my head, there are the first movements of both Brahms Concertos, Rachmaninov 1st and 2nd, Grieg, Tchaikovsky 1st and 2nd … and so on: the list is long. ...

And it assuredly includes the Beethoven we heard the other night, especially when it's played as Freddy Kempf played it! I should say I don't know what Freddy's thoughts are on this, and I'm certainly not speaking for him or the orchestra. It is just my personal view that New Zealand, which prides itself on leading the way in so many matters, should make the death of such pointless, anal-retentive protocols official, and emblazon hills and streets around international airports with: "Welcome to New Zealand, where applause between movements is allowed and encouraged!"



This post first appeared at Lindsay Perigo’s Sense of Life Objectivists (SOLO) site.


  1. My favourite is the 7th Symphony. I first heard it when a friend of mine and I were youth full and full of life and fun. Each day we would listen to a new record or CD. Then came the 7th. Below here at 11.49 [ the second movement Allegretto whatever that means ] Karajan conductor.

    Surely Beethoven is the world's greatest ever musician writer, and God in heaven he went deaf. What were thinking of God?

  2. Pleased you have finally posted something interesting Peter, instead of all the doom and gloom stuff; good to see Perigo still alive and kicking and writing something worthwhile.


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