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'Symptoms of Pianomania' - Freddy Kempf & The NZSO

Symptoms of Pianomania, Freddy Kempf & New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

By Max Rashbrooke

Saturday, September 23 - It was a curious concert, this, a real miscellany of great piano works, and at a curious time, on the night of the general election. Introducing the concert, NZSO cellist Andrew Joyce acknowledged the awkward timing and the fact that some audience members might be a little distracted. As a political animal, your reviewer was indeed somewhat distracted, and this may have affected my enjoyment of the concert, which I thought good, but only in parts.

Pianist Freddy Kempf’s helter-skelter tour through famous piano works premiered by their composers started with two movements from Handel’s Concerto for Keyboard, Op. 4. No. 1. Initially I was sceptical about the orchestration, which seemed neither convincingly lush nor authentically sparse, but I was gradually won over, although Kempf’s piano work sounded a little muddy in the lower registers, at least from where I was sitting.

Then followed the gorgeous slow movement from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21. Again, I wasn’t wholly convinced: the orchestra sounded a little like it was on auto-pilot, especially when Kempf was concentrating on the piano. He did play the long, singing lines beautifully, however, with a caressing sweetness.

The Chopin – Andante spiniato and Grand polonaise brillante – were also superb, Kempf’s playing alternately muscular and liquid, and he was excellent in the Mendelssohn as well. I was less sure about the Rachmaninov – the famous slow movement from the second piano concerto – because although the piano playing itself was lovely at times, the orchestra sounded uninspired, again suffering – to my hearing at least – from Kempf’s divided attention.

The concert ended with Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue; I think it was played well but it was hard to be sure, partly because I hate the piece and partly because I was really beginning to wonder about the election result by this stage. In sum: I’d happily go hear Kempf play again, but I’m less certain about hearing him conduct at the same time.

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