Wilhelm Walter Friedrich Kempff (November 25, 1895 – May 23, 1991) was a world-renowned German virtuoso pianist and composer. Although his repertory included Bach, Liszt, Chopin, Schumann, and Brahms, Kempff was particularly well-known for his interpretations of the music of Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert, both of whose complete sonatas he recorded at least once.
In 1917, Kempff made his first major recital, consisting of predominantly major works, including Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata and Brahms Variations on a theme of Paganini. Kempff toured very widely in Europe and much of the rest of the world. Between 1936 and 1979 he performed ten times in Japan (a small Japanese island was named Kempu-san in his honor). Kempff made his first London appearance in 1951 and in New York in 1964. He gave his last public performance in Paris in 1981, and then retired for health reasons (Parkinson's Disease). He died in Positano, Italy at the age of 95. He is survived by five children.
He was among the first to record the complete sonatas of Franz Schubert, long before these works became popular. He also recorded two sets of the complete Beethoven sonatas (and one early, almost complete set on shellac 1926-1945), one in mono (1951-1956) and the other in stereo (1964-1965). He recorded the complete Beethoven piano concertos twice as well, both with the Berlin Philharmonic; the first from the early 1950s in mono with Paul van Kempen, and the later in stereo from the early 1960s with Ferdinand Leitner. Kempff also recorded chamber music with Yehudi Menuhin, Pierre Fournier, Wolfgang Schneiderhan, Paul Grummer, and Henryk Szeryng, among others.
The pianist Alfred Brendel has written that Kempff "played on impulse... it depended on whether the right breeze, as with an aeolian harp, was blowing. You then would take something home that you never heard elsewhere." (in Brendel's book, The Veil of Order). He regards Kempff as the "most rhythmical" of his colleagues. Brendel helped choose the selections for IMG's "Great Pianist" issue of Kempff recordings, and wrote in the notes that he regarded Kempff "achieves things that are beyond him" in his "unsurpassable" recording of Liszt's first Legende, "St. Francis Preaching to the Birds."
When pianist Artur Schnabel undertook his pioneering complete recording of the Beethoven sonatas in the 1930s, he told EMI that if he didn't complete the cycle, they should have Kempff complete the remainder - even though the two pianists took noticeably different approaches to the composer (for example, Schnabel preferred extremely fast or slow tempos, while Kempff preferred moderate ones). Later, when Kempff was in Finland, the composer Jean Sibelius asked him to play the slow movement of Beethoven's 29th Sonata, the Hammerklavier; after Kempff finished, Sibelius told him, "You did not play that as a pianist but rather as a human being."
In 1957 Kempff began to give an annual Beethoven interpretation course in his villa in Positano. Six years after his death, friend and former student John O'Conor took over the course. Other noted pianists to have studied with Kempff include Mitsuko Uchida, Angela Hewitt, Idil Biret, Carmen Piazzini, and Gerhard Oppitz.
A lesser-known activity of Kempff was composing. He composed for almost every genre and used his own cadenzas for Beethoven's Piano Concertos 1-4. His student Idil Biret has recorded a CD of his piano works. His second symphony premiered in 1929 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus by Wilhelm Furtwängler. He also prepared a number of Bach transcriptions, including the Siciliano from the Flute Sonata in E, that have been recorded by Kempff and others.