Article by Idil Biret
I met Wilhelm Kempff for the first time when I was seven years old at a hotel in Paris. There was an upright piano in the lobby and I played there for him.
It was a new experience and a wonderful feeling for me to meet such a great artist who was also so modest. All the musicians I had known before were rather flamboyant and grandiose.
From then on whenever Kempff came to Paris for a concert he would find time to listen to me and see whether I was making progress.
A very special memory from those days was listening to Kempff performing the 32 Beethoven Sonatas in seven recitals at Salle Pleyel to a loving and enthusiastic audience. I had earlier heard the most popular Sonatas (Waldstein, Appassionata, Moonlight and the one that my mother played Pathetique) but what a revelation it was to hear all the others for the first time in these recitals.
It was like exploring a whole new Galaxy – every Sonata being as different from the others as stars and planets are.
Kempff had that incredible quality whereby he made clear everything he played. Even the most complicated work gained transparency through his vision.
One day Wilhelm Kempff decided that he wanted to play Mozart’s Concerto for two pianos with me in Paris. The concerts took place on 7 & 8 February 1953 at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees. The Orchestra of the Societe des Concerts du Conservatoire was conducted by Joseph Keilberth.
At that time Kempff had become like a second father to me and he was so much a part of my life. I started taking lessons from Kempff after I finished the Paris Conservatoire as he wanted it this way. I prepared several recital programs and some Concertos and went to Ammerland in June 1958 where I stayed for a week with his family in their house.
We worked together for a few hours every morning and then again in the afternoon. From these lessons which started then and continued through the years I have learnt so much; the real legato playing, the subtle art of pedalling, the sense of simplicity and economy, never to exaggerate and never to lose the musical line.
Initially I wanted to write down all his precious advice but he did not want this; he said that one should only remember what came naturally and each pianist having different priorities the student should never copy the master.
In addition to the private lessons in Ammerland I also attended his master classes at Positano in Casa Orfeo. In this magnificient place on the heights above the Mediterranean sea Kempff had created the noblest of music academies. A lesson with Wilhelm Kempff was not simply a lesson in music but also an educational course in humanism and culture. With his vast knowledge of the German, English, French and Italian Literature as well the ancient classic of the Rome and Greece he made a fascinating synthesis of music and literature.
Philosophy and Myth were intertwined with music in his inner world. I still hear the beautiful and noble sounds of Kempff’s piano playing in my ears. His warm and witty personality is ever present in my life. His noble poise on the stage and the always radiating bright personality was a source of inspiration and love to his audience.
He will remain the example of a real great artist for me and those who knew him closely.