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Lamb Amongst Wolves
January 28, 2011

Rudolf Kempe: Genius of the Podium
by Kevin Lamb
fitzgerald griffin foundation

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 vaults.

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 [1998], Bohm [1974], Jochum [1967], and Karajan [1970]).

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 Richard Strauss.”

Thanks to EMI, young and old generations alike can now appreciate this “Genius of the Podium.”

Lamb Amongst Wolves archives

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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