In the 1950s these recordings would have given a very up-to-date impression, I imagine; the playing is extremely clean there's never a hint of sentimental violin slides or over-use of the sustaining pedal. But nearly half a century later, perhaps we're more conscious of the old-world virtues Schneiderhan's beautiful legato bowing and gentle vibrato, Kempff's full, unforced tone, and a flexible approach from both artists, with finely graded ritardandos and subtle variations of tempo.
Actually, there is a considerable amount of available versions in the market. But just a few possess the radiant sense of expression of Beethovenian pathos. Many connoted interpreters mistakenly play Beethoven just remarking the Romantic mood, without going deep inside the score, and overlooking the fact the genius simply cannot be labeled.
Wilhelm Kempff was a master of poetic lyricism, with a wondrous keyboard touch and a breathtaking command of subtle dynamics and tonal colorations–all invaluable attributes of any Schubert interpreter. He also had the knack of holding together large structures that can often seem aimless, thus avoiding another trap many pianists fall into, that of lavishing so much attention on passing detail that Schubert's "heavenly lengths" can seem wayward wanderings. The one criticism often heard is that Kempff emphasizes poetry at the expense of drama. This magnificent set leaves that claim unsubstantiated.
There are few more sublime manifestations of the numinous in the mundane than Bach chorale prelude transcriptions sensitively played on the piano. Unfortunately, such things are now virtually forbidden by the authentic instrument law that does not permit Bach to be played on the piano, no matter how sensitively. In the past 20 years, there have been only two recordings of Bach chorale preludes: Murray Perahia's oh-so-sensitive performance and Paul Jacobs' just-the-facts performance. One has to reach further back than that to get good Bach.
One of the great cycles. Of the hundred or so available recorded cycles (out of about one hundred and fifteen or so), this rates as one of the best. In better sound than either the DG stereo cycle and the live King International cycle, Kempff's style is more poetic and less intense and fiery than others. Whatever Kempff may give away in terms of speed, power, and precision, he makes up for in other ways
Wilhelm Kempff's cycle of the Beethoven Piano Concertos with Ferdinand Leitner and the Berlin Philharmonic is one of the great achievements of the golden age of stereo. Kempff had already recorded a magnificent mono cycle in the mid-1950s with the same orchestra under Paul Van Kempen (recently reissued on the box set "Wilhelm Kempff: The Complete 1950s Concerto Recordings" in DG's Original Masters series – see my review), but these new performances maintained his highest playing standards while offering the added dimension of stereo sound.
Karajan’s artistic grip on the Salzburg Festival unofficially spanned three decades and woe betide anyone who upset him. Whether Kempff did or did not must be a matter of conjecture. What is sure is that this was his one and only appearance at the event. He was 63 years old at the time and lived to the ripe old age of 96, outliving Karajan himself. He was also a major recording artist for DG and their influence on the Festival was almost as pervasive as the conductor’s. Nevertheless this disc manages to fill a gap in Kempff’s discography with the Beethoven and Brahms works, two of the composers (Schubert and Schumann the others) with whose music this great pianist is readily associated.