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Kempe on the rostrum was neither self-effacing nor the extrovert maestro striving to catch the audience's attention. A musician to his fingertips, with comments to the players like: 'never mind what else is happening, just watch me', he set the required pulse, and by precise movements stemming shoulder high allowed baton, arms, hands and finger gestures to alternately shade or emphasize both line and phrase. His natural ability to be flexible and spontaneous at the same time always commended itself to orchestras, but I don't believe he looked on himself as a stylist. He revered the past greats, like Furtwängler, Toscanini, Mengelberg and Bruno Walter for what they had achieved. Hard graft and study of the score allowed him to master a wide repertoire without nationality kinships questioning his ability to conduct music from all periods.

By placing the music first and his performers second he has suffered unjust neglect, but a steady stream of recordings from various sources is now rapidly drawing critical and public opinions together in accepting him as one of the 20th century's eminent conductors with a prime respect and affection for the works he loved most. A performance of Symphony 4 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Odeon, Swiss Cottage in North London stands out, and the BBC have the broadcast. I must correct Robert Matthew Walker when he writes 'we must regret that he did not record more Bruckner'. Acanta recordings of the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies with the Munich Philharmonic still await reissue.

Kempe's seven years as Music Director to the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra (1965-1972) turned them into a superb orchestra, and this is clear from the opening bars of Symphony 8, where underlying tragedy is set in motion, poised awaiting the gradual rise of tension in lower strings for the fortissimo outburst (letter A). The flow gives the impression of being slightly held in reserve, but the conductor's masterly control of rubati conjures the required effect. This becomes more apparent at letter B when strings enter quietly with the second subject. A comparison with Furtwängler shows the similarity at the expense of the older man's deviation of tempi. Note the flexible changes of expression in falling strings after letter K and the gradual build up to the coda. The continuity of this is remarkable. The feathery pianissimo lightness in the upper strings against the mezzo forte melody lower down is perfectly weighted. Neither in the Scherzo or in the Langsam Trio that follows does Bruckner indicate amendments to the basic pulse: expression achieves all.

Expressiveness is again the main requirement of the haunting third movement Feierlich langsam, doch nicht schleppend, the composer's marcato sempre indications maintaining simplicity and poignancy until the poco a poco accelerando at letter I, then the ritardando back to Tempo I. The enormously passionate climax (letter V) under Kempe's strict but flexible control is straightforward and unaffected. The main theme returns to be transformed during the wonderful close -- horns, tubas, and strings alternating their harmonies with quiet majesty.

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Copyright © 21 October 2001 Bill Newman, Edgware, UK




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