Freddy Kempft plays Beethoven

Freddy Kempft plays Beethoven

Gifted pianist Freddy Kempf plays Beethoven

Spectacular music with a superb supporting quintet

Beethoven would have loved hearing pianist Freddie Kempf last night play his Piano Concerto No 5, a work the beleaguered genius struggled to bring to the stage and only saw performed once. 

It is unbelievable really, that a work of such easy melodic delight should have suffered neglect but then Beethoven’s life in music was almost always hard. He was going deaf when he wrote the Concerto number 4, also on last night’s bill, but at least he got to perform it himself. By the time the fifth reached its premier he was stone deaf and incapable of taking to the stage.  

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Kempf, currently the world’s favourite classical performer, gave both of these totemic compositions a brilliant rendition to an expert and appreciative audience at Cambridge's West Road concert Hall. What seems easy in his style is nonetheless alert and accurate, pitched in a demanding band between relaxation and tension, a balance at the core of all music. He manages to invigorate the audience during the bright sections of complex, fast fingerwork but strangely lull us into a hypnotic daze in the celebrated slow movements.

He has been winning prizes since he was eight years old – and when he came third at the Moscow Tchaichovsky piano competition, there was practically an international outcry led by an outraged Russian Press who claimed he was the hero of the show (they take their music pretty seriously over there.) Since then he has expanded from his North London beginnings to charm the world with a style of playing that is lyrical, beautiful, urgent and somehow wonderfully youthful.

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The global reach of the casually dressed, stylishly handsome home-grown musician (he’s from North London) has him one day in Sydney and the next in Singapore, welcomed by the great concert halls in the New World and the Old and still able to present as a gracious player, only too pleased to be appearing  at Cambridge’s modest West Road venue.

The performance Sunday, full of excitement and romantic nuance with a well chosen cast of players, was part of The Cambridge Summer Music Festival, rapidly turning out to be a dazzling sequence of  supremely talented stars. It continues through 29 July.  

I seldom close my eyes in concerts -- it looks a bit strange and affected  -- I used to think. But last night I was more or less put under by the relaxed mastery in the playing, and drifted into a sound world of suppressed and sublime calm. Beethoven had his eye on all that tranquility though. The third movement of the Concerto no. 4 changes key dramatically and suddenly eyes open to the pianist demanding a bright and alert attention to the next coruscating phase. 

The Wiener Kammersymphonie is a hard working and wonderful-looking accompanying ensemble. They drifted on to the stage dramatically, three women in three gorgeous floor length gowns in red, purple and green silk, all brilliant violinists -- the base and cello sustained with heroic vigour by two men. This Sinfonia’s achievement is hard to overestimate.

They substituted, just the five of them, for an entire orchestra. These musical works are normally performed when the piano is backed up by the full works, serried ranks of musicians all sawing away – in this version the percussion woodwind and brass vanished entirely. That it wasn’t either disappointing or especially apparent is a real tribute to this chamber ensemble.

A final word must go to the quiet star of the evening – the Concert Hall itself. It’s unshowy – serving drinks always seems a surprise move and the building has a bit of a secondary school assembly room feel to it. Unfair as it has to be a versatile hybrid of a building, acting as concert hall and University Department at one and the same time. But the acoustic in the gently raked auditorium is superb. After years of prejudice against it, it took Kempf and company to convert me to the wonderful quality of Cambridge’s only purpose built concert hall. Thank you for that Freddy. I shall never underestimate it again.

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