WASHINGTON, D.C. — Classical music enthusiasts are living in
a golden era of priceless re-mastered gems. Record labels are touching
up some of the finest classical recordings in their inventory, and
in some cases, discovering previously unreleased masterpieces in archival
EMI Classics, Decca, and Deutsche Grammophon are offering budget
box sets of some of their finest artists. One set that deserves to
be in every collection is EMI’s “Rudolf Kempe: The Genius
of the Podium." The 11-CD set includes four Beethoven symphonies
(1, 3, 5, and 6); Brahms 3rd and 4th symphonies; incidental music to
Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”;
Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade”; Dvorák’s
9th Symphony (“From the New World”) and Scherzo capriccioso;
selections from Smetana’s “The Bartered Bride”; two
disks of Richard Strauss’s Tone poems; selections from Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” “Die
Meistersinger von Nurnberg,” “Tristan und Isolde,” and “Parsifal”;
a set of polkas and waltzes from Franz Lehár and Johann and
Josef Strauss; and a disc of ballet music, overtures, and incidental
music of the “Vienna Philharmonic on Holiday.”
All the recordings are in stereo with the exception of the five selections
from Act III of “Die Meistersinger,” although the mono
sound quality (played on a Marantz SACD player) is exceptional.
The Beethoven symphonies are conventional readings — well-played
performances with a robust sound. Kempe’s 5th lacks the zippy
precision of Kleiber’s Allegro con brio and thunderous final
Allegro movement with the Vienna Philharmonic. Nevertheless, the Munich
Philharmonic delivers satisfying performances with arguably finer subtleties
in the Pastoral (6th) and Eroica (3rd) symphonies.
The selection of Richard Strauss’s “Orchestral Works” with
the Staatskapelle Dresden captures Kempe’s extraordinary skill
as a conductor. The recordings are crisp, clear, definitive pieces.
Elgar Howarth, former trumpeter and now conductor, described Kempe as “the dream conductor for an orchestral player with the greatest
technique that anyone’s ever seen…. He knew exactly what
orchestras needed.” These Dresden recordings of Strauss’s
work from the early 1970s showcase Kempe at his finest. One reviewer
noted of these Strauss recordings with the Dresden State Orchestra, “[A]t
that period and under this conductor they may have had equals in this
music but surely no superiors.”
Kempe recorded Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 with the Munich Philharmonic
twice, a live performance from November 1972 (released in 2003 by IMG
Artists on EMI Classics’ “Great Conductors of the 20th
Century” series) and three years later (December 1975-January
1976, available most recently on the Living Stage label). The live
performance is a cut above the studio version and ranks with the best
of the Bruckner 4ths (Wand , Bohm , Jochum , and
Kempe’s Bruckner 4th has an organic flow and richness of orchestral
balance that some top-notch recordings lack. It has a majestic quality
comparable to the magnificent renditions of Wand and Bohm.
Music critic Christopher Howell writes, “If the Brahms is masterly,
the Bruckner is more remarkable still. It is a very pure-headed performance,
based on broad tempi and transparent textures (the sound is always
limpidly beautiful). Without making any apparent interpretative points,
the music is allowed to unfold with a naturalness which few conductors
attain. Each new paragraph seems somehow to emerge from silence and
then finish in silence. Apart from a shaky start to the scherzo, the
orchestra plays marvelously, so this joins the benchmark versions by
Klemperer, Böhm, and Karajan.”
Birgit Nilsson, the late Swedish soprano and Wagnerian opera star,
performed as Brünnhilde in the 1960 Ring cycle under Kempe’s
debut at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus and in the now-available Covent
Garden Ring cycle from 1957 on the Testament label. In her autobiography,
Nilsson describes Kempe as an “excellent” conductor.
Kempe’s sudden death in 1976, at the relatively young age of
65, cut short the career of a widely respected, influential conductor.
It is certain that Kempe would have further solidified his standing
alongside other preeminent maestros had he lived to expand the catalog
with additional masterful recordings. Hopefully, the The Rudolf Kempe
Society will grant recording labels access to its voluminous archives
of previously unpublished live and studio recordings.
In 1991, a Cleveland-based reader of Gramophone, the long-running
monthly source on classical music, offered the following suggestion: “Regarding
what may become the ‘lost generation’ of artists (Editorial,
May, page 1968). I only own a few recordings of Rudolf Kempe, not because
I don't rate him as a great conductor (his Lohengrin is sublime), only
because he is seriously neglected by the record companies. The industry
is doing a great disservice to a man who will go down in history as
one of the conducting greats. It is high time EMI released a Kempe
Edition so a younger generation can explore the work of this undervalued
maestro. I’m sure there’s a lot more to Rudolf Kempe than
Thanks to EMI, young and old generations alike can now appreciate
this “Genius of the Podium.”
Lamb Amongst Wolves column by Kevin Lamb is copyright © 2010
by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfbooks.com.
All rights reserved. Permission is granted to reprint if credit is given to the
author and the Foundation.
Kevin Lamb, a columnist and writer, served
as managing editor of Human Events from 2002-2005.
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