Artist: Wilhelm Kempff
Album: Johann Sebastian Bach: Die Goldberg-Variationen
Originally released in: 1970
If this review of Wilhelm Kempff's Goldberg-Variationen piqued your interest, you can obtain a copy at the official Deutsche Grammophon store.
Divisive is hardly the right word to describe Wilhelm Kempff. Rather, it seems, he was one of the few pianists who drew near-universal admiration. His touch was considered magical, his understanding of the romantic repertoire profound, his interpretations warm and soulful. If there were any controversies to speak of, they revolved around his past – although not an active or outspoken party member, he did "perform for Nazi leaders a few short miles from Auschwitz". In a career spanning more than 60 years, these, too, would eventually die down.
His Goldberg-Variations, however, are a marked exception. Among the hundreds of unremarkable and homogenous recordings of Bach's legendary keyboard cycle, this one belongs to a select group of interpretations which are radically different. In fact, in terms of its potential to split the audience right down the middle, it is second only to Glenn Gould's performances of the piece – people generally rank this either as their favourite or their most despised rendition.
These negative reactions can seem bewildering. On a casual listen, Kempff's Goldberg is pleasing, fluent, and elegant. For something so beautiful to stir up such violent responses, it must contain more than one message.
In classical music, there can never be just one “right” way of playing a piece. But there can definitely be endless “wrong ones”. What, however, does “wrong” mean in this context?
It can mean hitting a few notes which are not in the score or leaving out others which are. It can refer to not playing the music at the indicated tempo or with an unsuitable affection – too playful or too stern, for example. It can even mean playing the “wrong” instrument. When musicians started performing the Goldberg on the modern pianoforte, for example, this was at first widely considered sacriledge – the piano did not exist at the time of Bach and many believed its dynamic and timbral power did not match the composer's “spiritual” personality.
You could forgive one of these “mistakes”, perhaps even two. On this recording, however, Kempff not only ticks all three boxes, but does so with almost provocative unapologeticalness. Although he doesn't play any wrong notes, he does leave out quite a few (more on that in a bit). He plays the variations on a modern piano (although Gould, after selling an unprecedented 100,000 copies of his LP, had more or less put that debate to rest). And he played it in a way which went against just about any tradition and any established expert opinion on what the conceptual core of the music might be.
Even if you've never sat through a complete performance of the Goldberg variations, it is highly likely you'll have at least once have heard the opening aria, this serenely flowing, free-form fantasy which introduces the material from which all 30 ensuing variations will draw their material, and which will make a magical return at the very end, giving the composition its there-and-back-again sense of completion. With almost any performance, the aria is an indication of the pianist's approach, the way she sees Bach and her vision for the ensuing variations.
But even if you've experienced dozens of Goldbergs, nothing can prepare you for hearing Kempff play the opening bars. I can still remember my total shock at what I was hearing – or rather, my sense of bewilderment: Whatever he's doing here, it's not in the score, I thought.
Unless you know what it actually is that he's doing, your first impression will likely be that Kempff is “recomposing” the melody similar to Max Richter recomposed Vivaldi's Four Seasons recently, rediscovering an overplayed piece and reducing it to a much more slender shape. His rhythmical pulse is unique as well, has an undeniable momentum - a marked contrast to the way almost any other keyboardist has played it: Meditative, time-arresting, and at a glacial speed.
It's an astounding and deeply confusing moment, but then again, as David Lynch rightly pointed out, confusion is a powerful emotion.
And it doesn't end here. Kempff does observe repeats, but not all of them, choosing the rather bewildering option of playing the second repeats, again against the expressed wish of the composer. Kempf also appears to use the pedal to add a touch of reverb, in itself a big no-no in historical practise circles, as no instrument that Bach could have played the piece on during his lifetime was capable of this – even Gould, whose rendition, at the time of this recording, was still the most out-there version available, essentially eschewed it.
As it turned out, Kempff, in his area, left out the notated ornamentations. He would go easy on them throughout, creating a floating sensations unlike any other version of the piece. In doing so, he achieves a sound which is truly spellbinding. Congenially captured by producers/engineers Wilhelm Lohse and Klaus Scheibe at Hannover's Beethovensaal, it is at once clear and transcendental. Although sometimes described as one, this is certainly no romantic reimagining of a baroque piece.
In fact, the entire essence of the interpretation is that Kempff avoids all the ups and downs that so many of his colleagues loved, the lengths they would go to in order to stand out. There are no dynamic outbursts within movements, no clearly delineated transitions between them, no breaks, ruptures, or shocks. If Gould's Goldberg grabbed your attention by giving each movement its distinct character, Kempff's feels like this is one big piece – a Goldberg galaxy as it were.
The sensation you get is that of a clockwork in motion, a sensation that this could potentially go on forever. After the last note has died down, it doesn't award you with this sense of return – but the desire to jump right back to the first variation and keep the wheels turning.
It is a performance that changed the way I think about music, because it proved a remarkable point: You could make an entirely convincing statement against established rules without actually disproving them. This rendition is utterly unflashy, unhip, and, at first glance, unspectacular. But it is also focused, hypnotic, and tender. It is far more down to earth, and yet follows a dream-logic.
In short: It establishes that, in music, paradoxes can live side by side without the need of resolving them, that decisions can be made which may be “wrong” on paper, and yet entirely convincing in practise. Which befits the music, as, of course, the composer's world view, too, was based on exactly this union of opposites, the thought that, ultimately, everything is connected and nothing, as random as it may seem, is incidental.
I know it is somewhat silly to speculate about these things and may come as an insult to supposedly more informed listeners. But still, I can't help but feel that Bach himself, given the opportunity to rise from his grave and listen to the countless interpretations of his timeless and eternal piece, would have liked this one the most.