An altogether warmer experience on Bonfire Night was enjoyed at Holt’s Auden Theatre, for a performance by one of today’s most successful and busy concert pianists, Freddy Kempf. Perhaps most famous for not coming first in the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow in 1998, Kempf has since enjoyed a busy international concert and recording schedule, playing with many of the world’s great orchestras in the world’s greatest venues.

Freddy Kempf © Neda Navaee 2010
Freddy Kempf
© Neda Navaee 2010

The excitement was palpable as the auditorium filled with an audience representing every age group, whilst a lone Steinway concert grand awaited its human companion on an otherwise empty stage.

Freddy Kempf opened his programme with Beethoven’s Sonata in E flat, “Les Adieux” which sparkled with technical wizardry. As we were transported through the music, a clear understanding emerged of its programmatic element, given to it by Beethoven, who wrote the sonata as a personal farewell to his patron and friend, the Archduke Rudolf in 1810.

Contrasting the wonderful example of form and structure in this sonata was Liszt’s explosive piano transcription of the Miserere from Verdi’s Il Trovatore, which followed. The emotional intensity of the scene in the opera where Manrico, who has been condemned to death, is imprisoned in a tower (where his own cries mix with the heart-broken pleas of his lover Leonara), was immediately evident. Freddy Kempf plays with such intensity and understanding that it was difficult not to be moved by the fearsome passages in the lower register, contrasted with the most lyrical of melodies in the upper register – the full compass and tonal range of the piano being exploited to the full.

Almost as if to cleanse our palates, there followed two ballades by Chopin (Op. 47 in A flat and Op. 52 in F minor). Delicately played, these sparkled with playfulness and drama – the long resonances seemed to cling to the strings forever, and yet the notes of the formidable coda at the end of the second ballade filled the air with the stunning virtuosity that Freddy Kempf has become known for.

The second half of the concert featured Schumann’s Kreisleriana. As a piece that was completely new to me, its eight episodes are delightfully playful and expressive, requiring immense dexterity from the pianist. The audience was drawn to the character of the music through the intense programmatic qualities of the melodies. These are treated with almost wild abandon by the composer, who ends the piece through making it dramatically disappear through the lower notes of the keyboard.

After such an impassioned performance, it was no surprise to see Freddy Kempf return to the stage to perform an encore in the form of another piano transcription by Liszt. Liebestod, the final aria from Wagner’s 1859 opera Tristan und Isolde, is perhaps one of the most powerful pieces in the orchestral repertoire for that genre, and the piano transcription incredibly captured every part of its emotional intensity. Though taken at a slightly faster tempo than I am used to, its waves of harmonic richness enveloped the transfixed audience, who responded with rapturous applause.

The old adage “remember, remember, the 5th of November” will I’m sure have taken on a new meaning for the audience, who dispersed into the cold air outside, full of quiet awe.