Wilhelm Kempff

German pianist and composer (1895, Jüterbog – 1991, Positano, Italy)

Wilhelm Kempff was the son and grandson of organists. He entered the Berlin Hochschule für Musik at the age of nine. He studied piano there with Karl Heinrich Barth (one of Arthur Rubinstein's teachers) and composition with Robert Kahn. In 1914, while pursuing his musical studies at the Viktoria Gymnasium in Potsdam, he started studying philosophy and the history of music at university. Two years later, he won the Mendelssohn Prize in composition and piano. That same year, he made his professional debut as pianist and organist, accompanying the Berlin Cathedral Choir during a tour of Germany and Scandinavia. He gave his first recital in the Berlin Singakademie in 1917. Aged just 22, he performed Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata and Brahms' Variations on a Theme of Paganini. In 1918, Wilhelm Kempff was invited for the first time to play with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Arthur Nikisch. He would continue performing regularly with this orchestra until 1979. In the 1920s, he toured South America, Europe and Japan. Unwilling to compromise his principles under the Nazi regime, he put his solo career on hold. After the war, he returned to the limelight, making his first appearance in London in 1951, then his American debut in 1964 in New York. After having played with the most acclaimed orchestras and given recitals on the most prestigious concert platforms, he gave his last public concert in Paris in 1981. He was married, with five children. He retired to his villa in Positano, Italy, where he died on 23 May 1991.

Wilhelm Kempff favoured a spontaneous, lyrical approach to music and devoted himself to the major classical repertoire: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven (he made two recordings of the complete Piano Sonatas), Brahms, Schubert (he was one of the first to record Schubert's complete Piano Sonatas) and Schumann. He played a great deal of chamber music with soloists such as Yehudi Menuhin and Pierre Fournier, and was actively involved in teaching. He was Director of the Stuttgart Musikhochschule from 1924 to 1929. He gave summer masterclasses in Potsdam with Edwin Fischer and Walter Gieseking in the 1930s, then in 1957 set up the Fondazione Orfeo (now the "Kempff Kulturstiftung") in Positano. Former students include Jörg DemusMitsuko Uchida and Idil Biret. He left a body of compositions: transcriptions of works by JS Bach, four operas, two symphonies, two concertos and piano music.

Six landmark dates in the life of Wilhelm Kempff

 1917: first recital in Berlin
1918: first concert with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
1951: debut in London
1957: created a cultural foundation, the Wilhelm-Kempff-Kulturstiftung
1964: debut in America
1981: last concert in Paris

Six key recordings by Wilhelm Kempff 

 1955: Brahms, Piano Works, Deutsche Grammophon
1961: Beethoven, 5 Piano Concertos, Berlin Philharmonic, Ferdinand Leitner, Deutsche Grammophon
1964: Beethoven, 32 Piano Sonatas, Deutsche Grammophon
1970: Beethoven, 10 Sonatas for Piano and Violin, Yehudi Menuhin, Deutsche Grammophon
1970: Schubert, Piano Works, Deutsche Grammophon
1975: Schumann, Piano Works, Deutsche Grammophon

Biography compiled from Radio France Documentation, December 2015