American Classics with Freddy Kempf


Wednesday 28th January 2015 at 7.30pm

Symphony Hall, Birmingham +44 (0)121 345 0600

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Michael Seal  conductor
Freddy Kempf  piano

Bernstein: Divertimento 14′
Gershwin: Piano Concerto in F 29′
Listen on Spotify

Korngold: Symphony in F Sharp 53′
Listen on Spotify

A symphony from the New World… with a difference. Mahler declared Erich Korngold a genius, but Hitler had other ideas – and from exile in California, Korngold poured out all his hopes and sorrows in 53 minutes of grand, heartbroken passion. It’s a wonderful counterpart to Bernstein’s hilarious Divertimento and the irresistible jazz-age melodies of Gershwin’s “skyscraper concerto”, played by one of Britain’s favourite pianists.


Review by John Quinn, SeenandHeard, MusicWeb:

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…     “Near the end Gershwin pares everything back to just a solo flute and the pianist, quietly duetting as if they were the last people left in a downtown bar late one night. Here Marie-Christine Zupancic and Kempf were quite magical in partnership. There was vitality and drive in the colourful finale. Kempf offered sparkling playing but, as in the Bernstein, I didn’t quite feel the orchestra were encouraged by Michael Seal to be quite as unbuttoned as the music demands. Nonetheless, this was an enjoyable account of the concerto

 Erich Wolfgang Korngold attracted great attention as a youthful prodigy in Vienna. In the 1930s he made a new home in America where he put his prodigious talent to work writing many notable movie scores in Hollywood. Yet despite his success in the cinema Korngold continued to write concert music also. His only symphony was completed in 1951. It is an elusive work in the sense that opportunities to hear live performances are rare indeed. I first became acquainted with it through Rudolf Kempe’s pioneering 1972 recording – the MusicWeb International review by Ian Lace is well worth reading, not least for much valuable background information.  There have been a number of subsequent recordings of the work – including one by Sir Edward Downes for Chandos  – but I’ve never had a chance to hear it live until this evening.

 The symphony is scored for a large orchestra, including a substantial percussion section, and the scoring is constantly interesting and resourceful. Among many features that catch the listener’s ear are the percussive use of piano and marimba, especially in the first movement, and the rather spooky end to that movement, including col legno work by the strings. It was one of the achievements of this performance that Michael Seal and the CBSO brought out all the colour and rhythmic ingenuity in the work.”     …



Review by Christopher Morley, Birmingham Post:

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…     “The first winner was Leonard Bernstein’s Divertimento, a sparky masterpiece of sleight-of-hand wizardry bettering Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, allowing every section of the orchestra to shine (it was written for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, so there’s a topical connection, Andris Nelsons about to leave the CBSO for that band), and consummately delivered under the efficient and empowering baton of Michael Seal.

The second was George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto, the greatest to emerge from the western hemisphere, so redolent of the aspirations of the United States, and delivered with idiomatic flair here by Freddy Kempf’s fleet pianism.

An initially staid orchestral contribution came to life once Kempf got going, the soloist positively encouraging attentive interplay between himself and the players, and his gorgeously singing cello-like tone in the lyrical episodes drawing an “anything you can do” response.

This was a performance radiating sheer pleasure, and will not easily be forgotten.”     …



Review by Richard Whitehouse, ClassicalSource:

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…     “Enjoying audible rapport with the CBSO, Freddy Kempf knitted its various sections together convincingly – though this performance, as with the work itself, was at its best in the Adagio; its trumpet theme plaintively phrased by Jonathan Holland, with Kempf maintaining tension admirably in the brief central cadenza prior to an eloquent climax. He made the most of the finale’s review of earlier ideas as part of its agitated progress, and if the peroration seemed a mite underwhelming, the breezy coda did not lack for panache.

After the interval, a welcome hearing (the first-ever in Birmingham?) for Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Symphony in F sharp of 1952. The composer’s most far-reaching attempt to recalibrate his innate late-Romanticism for the austere post-war era, it is a work fairly riven with contradiction for all that its ambition cannot be doubted. Seal had the measure of the initial Moderato with its bracing deployment of piano and percussion (not the only instance where Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony acts as a template), and purposeful interplay of its respectively ominous, yearning and poignant main themes. The quixotic Scherzo needed a little more agility for its acute contrasts in harmony and texture fully to register, but the Adagio was finely handled in terms of sombre emotions which reach a climax of tragic and consciously Mahlerian import prior to the resigned close.”     …


Review by Owen Walton, OldMusicalCuriostiyShop:

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…     “Michael Seal, a passionate devotee of the composer, has waited some time to conduct the work in Birmingham and I for one am extremely grateful to him for being afforded the opportunity to hear the symphony live played by a world-class ensemble.

For that is the impression that this performance left; a truly astonishing display both of orchestral virtuosity and of commitment. We all know that British orchestras operate on a minimal rehearsal schedule and the results here were deeply impressive. There is no real Korngold tradition in Birmingham, the orchestra having performed his music for the first time in 1993 (the now ubiquitous Violin Concerto which would, arguably, have become a repertoire staple much earlier if it were not for the length of time it took for soloists capable of rivalling Heifetz in the work to emerge) and little else since. Considering, then, that this was a new work to the majority of players the results were a testament to their versatility and to Seal’s ability to galvanise his players.

Korngold wrote expertly for orchestra and the CBSO obviously relished the challenges that faced them in every department. The brass, in particular, now seem to have a sound when playing as a full section that is deep, dark and centred in the Concertgebouw mould (how different they sound than in the Rattle era). The strings start with a focussed bass section, rich celli, vibrant violas. The upper strings have a leanness (do not mistake this for undernourished) that make easy work of clarifying Korngold’s frequently dense close harmony writing. If the second movement scherzo was a feat of ensemble playing and expert crowd control, the dark heart of the work (the ensuing adagio) sang with an eloquence that was intensely moving when not shrieking with despair. Korngold’s own brand of wistful nostalgia, in which he brings to the fore fragments of what sound once popular Viennese songs brings to mind the sentiment of ‘Gluck mir das verblieb’ from Die Tote Stadt (Ich kenne das Lied/Ich hört es oft in jungen, in schöneren Tagen/ Es hat noch eine Strophe- weiß ich sie noch?). These small ideas seemed to materialise and fade away, half-remembered experiences of a happier time. It takes intelligence and an ear for orchestral balance for this to work.”     …

The Year 1913: Falstaff

Wednesday 20 February 2013 at 7.30pm

Symphony Hall, Birmingham +44 (0)121 345 0600

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Andrew Litton  conductor

Freddy Kempf  piano

Elgar: Falstaff 35′ Listen on Spotify

Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2 31′

Respighi: The Pines of Rome 26′ Listen on Spotify

When England’s greatest composer met England’s greatest writer, the results were bound to be special. Elgar’s Falstaff might just be his masterpiece; it’s a big-hearted, deeply personal tribute to Shakespeare’s comic hero, written in 1913 and filled with glorious tunes – as well as ominous shadows. Popular guest conductor Andrew Litton has matched it with two spectacular musical panoramas: Respighi’s sumptuous postcard from Rome, and the cold steel of Prokofiev’s electrifying Second Piano Concerto, also exactly 100 years old. Played tonight by Freddy Kempf, one of today’s true stars of the keyboard, it’s guaranteed to thrill.


Review by John Quinn, SeenAndHeard, MusicWeb:

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…     “It certainly requires a pianist of exceptional virtuosity as well as a conductor who is a very adroit accompanist: happily this performance had both. In the first movement the performers brought out well the piquancy of the march-like material but the high point was Kempf’s rendition of the formidable extended cadenza. This is a remarkable passage, demanding consummate technique and reserves of physical strength.  Kempf has both. He was commanding in this solo and although much of the music is forward looking and dissonant it also shows, I think, an awareness of the heritage of Russian Romantic piano music. The brief, fast and furious Scherzo was dispatched through dazzling fingerwork on Kempf’s part and no little dexterity from the CBSO under Litton’s alert and lively direction. Calum MacDonald describes the third movement Intermezzo as “dissonant and angular”. It was powerfully projected in this performance though there are also passages that call for finesse both from the orchestra and the soloist and these came off equally well. There’s a good deal of percussive, powerful music in the finale and this was excitingly delivered. Another demanding cadenza gave Kempf a further opportunity to show his mettle before the pyrotechnical end of the work. I’d not experienced this piece in the concert hall before but tonight’s performers made a powerful case for it and Kempf’s virtuosity was rightly acclaimed by the Birmingham audience.     […]

[…] Once again the CBSO was on cracking form in this concert and it was evident from their response to him that they like working with Andrew Litton. I thought this programme was a mouth-watering, fascinating feast of extravagantly scored orchestral music when I first saw it advertised and it lived up to my expectations. There were a surprising number of empty seats in Symphony Hall; those who stayed away were the losers.”




Review by Christopher Morley, Birmingham Post:

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…    “Andrew Litton proved yet again that it’s not only British  conductors who hold the secret to Elgar. His reading of Falstaff, a masterpiece valedictory in  tone, was sensitive to mood, allowing so much character to come from the players  themselves (Laurence Jackson’s dreamy violin, Eduardo Vassallo’s avuncular  cello, Gretha Tuls’ sorrowing bassoon, Cliff Pick’s so-sensitive timpanism – and  such beefy, generous sounds from all the rest) as he unfolded this sad old man’s  story with such clarity of texture and richness of colour. There were surtitles  recounting the episodes; they were almost redundant, given the communicative  grip of Litton’s reading.

Also written at the death-throes of self-bloating  romanticisim, but expressing itself in a totally different, twilight-denying way  is Respighi’s symphonic poem The Pines of  Rome, the CBSO winds fizzing in its boisterous opening  before more portentous matters take over, with a march-past of Roman legionary  forces.”     …



Australian Chamber Orchestra and Freddy Kempf

Sunday 27 November, 3pm

Birmingham Symphony Hall

Mozart Symphony No 29 28’
Shostakovich Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings 22’
Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings 28’
Mozart Symphony No 40 35’

Australian Chamber Orchestra
Richard Tognetti director, violin
Freddy Kempf piano
Tine Thing Helseth trumpet


The Australian Chamber Orchestra has been described by the Washington Post as having ‘the energy and vibe of a rock band with the ability of a crack classical chamber group.’ This afternoon they’ll shine a fresh light on much-loved music by Mozart and Tchaikovsky.

The Aussies are matched in youthful flair by the dream team for Shostakovich’s witty Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings: pianist Freddy Kempf and brilliant trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth.

‘Listening to the ACO is like taking a swig of a vitamin drink. Suddenly: pow! The music certainly feels stronger, muscled, hot from the gym… If that’s what Australia does for you, I’m also emigrating.’ The Times

Classic FM’s Anne-Marie Minhall, recommends today’s concert: “If this is the first time you’ve encountered the ACO, the first thing you’ll notice is that, unlike other orchestras, their musicians stand when they perform which brings a real energy to their playing. The second thing is that music-making of this quality is an absolute joy to behold.”

Review by Ivan Hewett, Telegraph:

…     “The Mozart alone merited the ticket price, but here also were Shostakovich’s early Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, and Mozart’s G minor Symphony. Freddy Kempf, the solo pianist in Shostakovich’s concerto, was burningly intense and focused, where sometimes a certain ironic distance would have helped in the outer movements. Trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth had a far less taxing role, but she executed it with relish.

Then, in Tchaikovsky’s Serenade, the orchestra proved it can do romantic pathos just as well as 18th-century wit.”     …

Article on Richard Tognetti, by Christopher Morley, Birmingham Post:

Review by Andrew Clements, Guardian:

…      “Russian music separated the symphonies. Larger string groups might produce more sumptuous weight of tone in Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, but not the finely painted inner detail the ACO managed, nor the exquisitely spun melodic thread through its slow movement, while in Shostakovich’s Concerto for piano and trumpet, with Freddy Kempf and Tine Thing Helseth as the soloists, they responded with playing of whiplash precision. Though it’s a concerto in which the trumpet is very much the junior partner, Helseth took every opportunity to show what a fine instrumentalist she is, even if there was something a bit bombastic about Kempf’s contribution; this is, after all, a work in which a touch of sardonic brittleness is entirely appropriate.”