by Frank Forman

(born 1895 November 25 in Jterborg, near Berlin; died
  1991 May 23 in Positano, Italy)
by Frank Forman
Version 2, 1995 May 27.
Version 1 was 1990 November.


  We often call opposite things which are very much
alike. Thus both Protestants and Catholics are Christians
and both liberalism and conservatism are Western
political philosophies. And Wilhelm Kempff and Wilhelm
Backhaus are two German pianists whose differences
very much complement each other.
  Backhaus' playing can be characterized as a masculine
carving of solid granite. Yet within this huge, rugged
framework, Backhaus is a subtle interpreter. He plays, it
might be said, from the outside in. You might say he is
the loudest of pianists, even in the quietest passages,
because he plays with the most authority.
  Kempff is the opposite, or as it might be better put,
the complement of Backhaus in German piano playing.
With Kempff, it is not the loudness but the quiet that one
hears. There is a *suspended* *tension*, a calm, and a
holding back between each note and the next. Under
Backhaus' playing there is a feeling of inevitable
movement; with Kempff's an unfolding. He plays, as it
were, from the inside out.
  The best example of this is the beginning of the last
movement of the Waldstein Sonata of Beethoven
(especially the 1951-2 monophonic LP recording). The
pensive second movement has just ended, and what will
become the stormy finale is quietly beginning. The
volume and speed gradually pick up; but, no, Beethoven
hesitates and begins quietly again again, before moving
up and down still more until the work's triumphant end.
Kempff keeps us suspended throughout, no matter how
well we think we know the music. This is a supreme
instance of his use of silence: the spaces between the
notes count as much as the notes themselves.
  Another instance of the subtlety of this gentle poet is
to be found in the fourth movement of Bach's Cantata
140. Bach transcribed the setting of the famous hymn,
"Zion Hears the Watchman Singing," for the organ (No.
1 in the Schbler set), but Kempff made his own piano
version. In the original Cantata, the violins and violas
play in unison over a separate continuous melody in the
bass. After twelve measures, the strings continue and the
tenor chorus joins in with the hymn.
  Kempff hardly has the resources of combined chorus
and orchestra at his disposal, or even an organ, but when
hearing the hymn theme intone, I forget momentarily that
it is a piano playing. I imagine myself sitting in a
cathedral and the organist pulling out the reed stops on
his instrument! I am not sure how Kempff accomplishes
this feat (again, especially in the 1953 monophonic LP
recording), but this kind of control is worth more than
all the pyrotechnics of all the so-called virtuosos put
  In his notes to the second movement of Beethoven's
27th Sonata, Kempff remarked, "We hear the tune
played three times unaltered, but the fourth time
Beethoven cannot reist joining in quietly himself." To
this I should add that the pianist also joins in quietly, and
this is a key to understanding his interpretations. There
are times when I put his records on, not to be engaged
by them unitl I, as listener, join in too. Then the effect is
  Wilhelm Kempff was born in a Jterborg, a small
town about thirty miles south of Berlin, on 1895
November 25. He was the son of a Lutheran pastor, who
was a pianist himself. The quality of the interpretation on
his first recording, an acoustic made about 1920, was
such that it was released even though his exclamation of