RPO/Slatkin/Kempf, Cadogan Hall, London
Tuesday 06 February 2007
In recent years, the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow has become famous for its very public disputes between audiences and judges. Not winning has often made for bigger headlines and greater notoriety. British-born Freddy Kempf took third prize in the 1998 competition but public adulation awarded him the gold medal and the press, wholeheartedly lending ballast to the protest, dubbed him "The Hero of the Competition".
Kempf still plays the Tchaikovsky B-flat minor Concerto like a winner, replying to those opening horn calls with chords of implacable authority. The big tune may be in the strings, but the subtle shifts in weight and tone that he finds in his accompaniment dictate how it sounds. And once the mightiest deception in music is past (this iconic tune never reappears), the most familiar piano concerto in the repertoire is predictable only in its unpredictability.
It is often said that the mark of a great performance lies in the degree to which the performer can convey some sense of being complicit in the moment of composition. The amazing thing about Kempf's reading of the concerto was its very real and dramatic sense of the unexpected. Those sudden shifts from reverie to demonic possession were unusually and disconcertingly abrupt. Tchaikovsky's volatility was mirrored in Kempf's temperament. The excitement was almost scary.
When Leonard Slatkin and the Royal Philharmonic (alert and quick of reflex throughout) carried us into the lyric second subject of the Cossack-dancing finale, their sense of wellbeing was countered by Kempf hustling the tune on. Quite a performance, then - and one enhanced by the clarity and immediacy of the Cadogan Hall acoustic. How grateful this hall is for the woodwinds, whose presence is always so well felt. And how characterfully they donned their commedia dell'arte regalia for Stravinsky's piquant take on Pergolesi and others in his ballet Pulcinella. Its charming and often devilishly inappropriate subversions were all very palate-cleansing after the Tchaikovsky, but I'd had sufficient with the first course.
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