This was the first of two concerts in which Freddy Kempf will act as piano soloist and director, joining the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to perform the entire cycle of Beethoven’s five piano concertos. They are a magnificent series of works, demonstrating the development of the composer’s style from the lightness of his youth to the darker, more dramatic, late works. As they are so rarely performed together, or even as a series, this was a fascinating opportunity to hear the first three concertos performed together.
Kempf stood up to conduct the orchestra and then sat to play, a contrast to many piano-directors who remain seated at the piano throughout. Whilst this was probably down to personal preference it was at times distracting to watch. Towards the end of long piano passages he was appearing ready to stand; and towards the end of conducting passages was half seated but still trying to face the orchestra. It did feel that the ends of some of the phrases, usually perfectly placed and caressed, lost out to the requirement to stand up or sit down in time for the next section.
As a conductor Kempf was full of the same character he has as a pianist – creative swirling motions and full-body expression led the orchestra through a piece in which he was completely involved at every moment.
This is music that really puts an orchestra’s ensemble skills to the test, and having the conductor also at the piano can only have added to the challenge. The RPO rose to the task and played together beautifully in each of the works. Kempf led the players through Beethoven’s high and low times, perfecting every detail of dynamic and tone, like a slick machine. There were moments of startling brilliance emerging from the sound every so often – perhaps as Beethoven wished it. The orchestra’s woodwind players really shone, especially a particularly excellent passage shared between a solo flute and bassoon in the third concerto.
Despite his constant upping and downing from piano to conductor, Kempf was as ever a delight to watch and listen to. His playing is loved by so many for good reason – there are few who can make something seem so natural and easy but at the same time be filled with passion in the way he can.
The second concert in the cycle takes place at St David’s Hall next May. Details here.