Play it again, Freddy

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The Independent Culture
MAKING AN entrance is tricky in the crowded pianistic world: the danger is that you won't be noticed. Freddy Kempf will be noticed next week because he is cleverly making a double entrance - with the trio that bears his name at the Purcell Room on Sunday, and as soloist at the Wigmore three days later.

Moreover, he comes preceded by some nicely orchestrated publicity: winning third prize at the Tchaikovsky competition despite hostile machinations by the Moscow piano mafia, and starring in a Times story headlined "Talented young pianist given pounds 74,000 Steinway".

Yet Kempf's debut should really have been back in 1992, when he became the BBC's Young Musician of the Year. But somehow, rather than taking off, he dropped from view. Which is why, when I follow his instruction and knock on the window by the broken bell at his West Hampstead flat, I get the feeling of uncharted territory.

The living-room is very much a workshop, with some serious-looking weights among the Nintendo gear, and a small Yamaha equipped with headphones. This is so that the half-Japanese Kempf and his young Russian wife - also a professional pianist - can practice without driving each other mad. Above his head is a row of 21st birthday cards: the London debut is perfectly timed.

Begin at the beginning, I say, and obligingly he does: he seems to have been a pretty standard sort of prodigy. Only after the BBC award does the story get interesting, as he gets snapped up by a concert agency which messes him around and then spits him out again; there's nothing sadder or less saleable than a prodigy who is no longer young. These teenage years coincided with his German hotelier father's passage from boom to bust, and I get a definite whiff of Dickens in Kempf's preoccupation with the avoidance of hard times. His Japanese grandmother had given him a brand new Steinway, and he went in for a string of competitions to pay off the loan he had taken out against it, but he still had to sell it in the end.

When I ask about the Steinway, reported as being given to him by a rich female lawyer, he winces. The story, he says, was not accurate. "The first I saw of that piano was its picture in the paper. It's not mine, and I don't have it." But it was a gift? "Yes, but I discovered there were strings attached." When I ask what strings, he clams up in embarrassment. Then he brightens. "But the story did sell some tickets, so I don't regret it." Guileless or worldly-wise? Both at once, I conclude, when he adds that he's an accredited Yamaha artist.

The same thought occurs when he talks about the goal of his existence. He describes himself as a romantic: "I'm only interested in music which expresses feeling, and in Schumann's above all. My priorities in life are almost exactly what he wanted to express - the notion of loving and being loved." Yet in the next breath he admits to being over-ambitious, and goes on to compare his playing with Evgeny Kissin's, in a way which is startlingly candid. "I'm more selfish than he is. I want people to notice me, rather than the composer who wrote the piece."

But to listen to him play - his first Schumann record will be released on the Bis label in March - is to be won over. His Moscow recording of Schumann's Humoreske is by turns dreamy, sumptuous, and wild; it's hard to believe such chaste perfection could emerge under the inhuman pressure of the occasion. But that is just another Kempfian contradiction. We shall hear more of this boy, who excites teenage groupies and mature critics in equal measure.


TIME WAS, not so long ago, when London's cultural powerhouse was the South Bank, while the unloved Barbican lurked miserably in its City fastness. This week, the Barbican unveiled its plans for 1999, and suddenly something became clear: it is now the powerhouse.

This is, quite simply, because the new regime at the Barbican know exactly where they are going. Having got rid of the whingeing RSC, they are welding all the component parts of their operation intelligently together. And it certainly helps that they are in no way dependent on the Arts Council. The South Bank, by contrast, has been paralysed by the Arts Council. Since the failure of Nicholas Snowman's grandiose Lottery bid, it has been unable to take any decision about its future; the absurd "British Airways London Eye" wheel hangs over it like a curse.