Following up on the success of their complete Beethoven symphony series last year, this season the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra mounted a full cycle of the same composer's piano concertos, in which both the soloist and conductor roles were taken by British pianist Freddy Kempf, a frequent visitor to these shores. It gives no pleasure at all to report that both roles found Kempf over his head in a rather disappointing take on three Beethoven masterpieces.

Freddy Kempf © Neda Navaee
Freddy Kempf
© Neda Navaee

Problems were evident right from the introduction of the opening Egmont Overture. The severe chords were a bit underplayed and the following quiet woodwind section seemed to meander aimlessly, lacking gravitas. A great performance of Egmont should have darkness in spades, but here it was all very genial, effective in the spirited Allegro passages but less compelling in the overall narrative. And while the orchestra played well, my suspicion is that the unforgiving acoustics of the Bruce Mason Theatre may have played a part in throwing off the orchestra's usually superb sense of orchestral balance, the winds seeming much too prominent vis-à-vis the strings in this work. The acoustic also robbed the playing of a lot of its staying power, even the timpani thwacks becoming muffled almost immediately after being played.

This was followed by Kempf's attempt as a pianist-conductor which on occasions appeared more a gimmick than a serious performance, with Kempf leaping to his feet during tutti passages and then hurriedly resuming his seat for the solo passages, occasionally conducting with his left hand as his right continued with Beethoven's passagework. This stop-start nature of the conducting seemed to affect the interpretation of both concertos, with little sense of dialogue between soloist and ensemble and even more damagingly, little feeling for momentum or an over-arching concept. It was also rather disorienting to watch.

Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor finds Beethoven throwing off the shackles of his classical predecessors Haydn and Mozart and stretching his own expressive wings. Kempf is well-known for his formidable technique, but it deserted him for long stretches of this concerto, perhaps as a result of having to conduct simultaneously. Many of the runs were laboured and repeated figurations found him unable to keep a consistent sense of rhythm or dynamics. The opening theme, boldly intoned by the orchestra, had Kempf struggling to keep the two hands together. He was more convincing in the meditative sections of this second movement, rendered with much tonal loveliness. However, phrasing was fussy, something that came across as more self-conscious than genuine interpretative nuance. Many of the technical issues from the first movement returned in the third but the interpretation had more momentum and overall coherency of concept. Paradoxically, the cadenzas in all three movements were thrillingly executed. The orchestra's pared-down size was presumably a nod towards the authenticity movement, though few of that movement's virtues of lucidity or rhythmic rigorousness were apparent in the Third Concerto. Again, perhaps the acoustics were partly to blame but one missed crispness of attack in many of the orchestral moments.

In comparison, the following performance of Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat major served Beethoven rather better. Perhaps greater familiarity with the solo part here meant that Kempf was less burdened by the technical and could summon some more intriguingly expressive phrases. The great sprawling first movement may still have lacked overall coherency but many of the individual episodes were ravishing. Individually, there were striking moments from both orchestra and pianist but, despite the fact he was also conducting, they scarcely seemed aware of each other enough to provide a meaningful dialogue. Though never technically infallible, Kempf made the most of the glorious second subject. The orchestra opened the Adagio in an absolutely gorgeous fashion, the balance problems I noted in Egmont having largely been sorted out by this point. Without a pause after the reveries of the Adagio we were hurtled straight into the breakneck conclusive movement. The coda was undeniably exciting but like most of the pleasures of this concert it was really just momentary, a summation of what was, in the whole, a rather disappointing experience.