Monday 6 August 2018


Esplanade Concert Hall
Wednesday (1 August 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 6 August 2018 with the title "An agile journey through the geography of piano etudes".

The etude or study is a short piece written to train digital and motor technique, thus honing agility in students of the instrument. Piano etudes have often struck fear and dread, especially those dry and didactic finger-twisters by Czerny and Hanon which barely pass as listenable music.

British pianist Freddy Kempf served up a coup with a recital of 24 etudes, but fortunately those written by Chopin, Rachmaninov and living Ukrainian composer Nikolai Kapustin. Quite uncharacteristically, he opened with three Concert Études from Op.40 by Kapustin, jazz-inspired numbers which are usually performed as encores.

Getting off to a thunderous start, he immediately had listeners audience eating from his hands. The central Étude No.7, entitled Intermezzo, opened with smoky and night-clubby insouciance before working to a tipsied frenzy that was hard not to wholeheartedly applaud at its conclusion.

That was exactly what the audience did, clapping through short breaks between the 12 Études Op.10 by Frederic Chopin, mostly after those which ended with a big bang. One wondered whether Kempf was distracted by the inappropriately timed and intrusive accolade, but he more than held his nerve.

Scintillating bravura was the order of the day, beginning with the wide arpeggio stretches in the C major Étude (No.1) and concluding with the coruscating passion of the C minor “Revolutionary” Étude (No.12). In between, his razor-keen reflexes and hyper-acute synapses fired, tossing off such treacherous pieces like the A minor “Chromatic Étude” (No.2) and G flat major “Black Key” Étude (No.5) without so much as breaking a sweat.

There was none of that mindless playing-by-the-numbers pianism so often encountered in keyboard automatons churned out by the dozen. Instead these were very nuanced readings, where purring pianissimos and furious fortissimos were mixed in with deliciously timed rubatos, that inimitable soul of musical Romanticism.

Kempf's performances of the 9 Études-Tableaux Op.39 by Rachmaninov that followed after the interval were arguably even better. Moving away from mere virtuoso display, these are little tone poems which seem to tell stories from deep within the Russian soul. The first two were obsessed with the Dies Irae (the medieval plainchant of Judgement Day), first angry rumbling followed by calming placidity.

Then there was that astonishing sequence of etudes that relived bells of all nature and kind. The E flat minor (No.5) tolling variety was vividly contrasted with the heavier-laden pealing in C minor (No.7). In between was wild scampering in A minor (No.6), which listeners will be readily reminded of Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf.

Gentle swirling eddies in D minor (No.8) soon gave way for the triumphal procession in D major (No.9), where a marching band's parade closed with a thrilling and sonorous carillon. Kempf's journey through the geography of piano etudes had come to an end, and there was one encore. That was a complete antithesis to the mighty study: Chopin's simple little waltz called L'Adieu, or Farewell.  

Freddy Kempf's piano recital was presented as part of the Aureus Great Artists Series.

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