Mussorgsky: Pictures from an Exhibition; Ravel: Gaspard de la nuit; Balakirev: Islamey

Freddy Kempf (BIS SACD-1580)

6 July 2008 3 stars

Freddy Kempf: Mussorgsky, Ravel, BalakirevFreddy Kempf continues to build up an enviable discography on the Swedish label, BIS, and this latest release from the young British pianist sees him tackle three staples of the virtuoso repertoire.

Mussorgsky's Pictures from an exhibition, Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit and Balikarev's Islamey are all works that aspire to creating orchestral sound effects; all of them, the booklet reminds us, have also been recreated in orchestral garb. The first thing that has to be said is that in BIS's astonishingly faithful and detailed SACD sound, it's impossible not to be impressed not only by Kempf's playing but also by what a magnificent instrument the modern concert grand is – in this case a Steinway model D – for creating a kaleidoscope of sounds that really can be said to approximate that of a full orchestra.

Starting off with Mussorgsky's 1874 masterpiece, it's immediately apparent that this is going to be a forthright and forceful performance. After a purposeful initial 'Promenade', 'Gnomus' opens furiously, lines are sharply delineated and trills rattle away sinisterly. However, Kempf is patient in the build up for 'Il vecchio castello', and if in his epic performance of 'Bydlo' the cattle sound more like mammoths, the effect is without doubt impressive. Unfortunately, though, his playing sometimes lacks genuine lightness or some of the mercurial touch that Mikhail Pletnev, for example, brings in his now classic 1991 recording on Virgin. That said, there's astonishing, muscular clarity for the unhatched chicks, and the left-hand counterpoint is delineated with precision.

The repeated notes that characterise the lament of Schmuÿle lose something through their heaviness, however, and the bickering at the market in Limoges is so heated it sounds like it might develop into a full-scale brawl any second. His control of dynamics in 'Catacombae' is again impressive, though, and it's hard to imagine the 'Huts on hen's legs' sounding more feroce than they do here. 'The Bogatyr Gate' is hugely imposing and performed with clarity and control; there's no denying the excitement of the sound he produces as he clatters his way through the final bars. However, it's difficult in the midst of all this power and brilliance not to wish for a little more in the way of delicacy and light and shade. For all the impressiveness of Kempf's granite dexterity, there's little sense of him ever relaxing and the music often sounds forced, pushed and squeezed for maximum effect.

Kempf's approach is less abrasive in the other works on the disc. His reaction to Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit sounds more considered and is, as a result, more successful. The playing is still muscular and occasionally pushed but in 'Ondine' and 'Scarbo' these help to produce accounts that are haunting and crystalline. The swells in dynamics and vertiginous swirling arpeggios send the head spinning and the sinister atmosphere is well captured. In 'Le gibet', Kempf's ear for sonority is effectively brought into service and he shows a patience and subtlety that is not always evident in his Mussorgsky. This still might not be the most hypnotic performance of this masterpiece, but here Kempf's fuel-injected pianism is better aligned with his interpretation.

Virtuosity is also, necessarily, to the fore in Balakirev's Islamey. In this jaw-dropping showpiece, one has just to sit back and marvel at Kempf's playing. I don't think it quite knocks some of the best versions off their perch – Berezovsky's breathtaking account on Teldec from 1996 remains amongst the most impressive for blending musicality with effortless pianism – but it's still a thrilling ride, with BIS's engineering once again capturing the details with astonishing fidelity as we clatter round one breakneck corner after another.

For Kempf's fans and those who admire muscular, clear playing there's no doubt a lot to enjoy here. The pianist has less space for manoeuvre in the Ravel and Balakirev and the music itself seems to offer less in the way of intepretatative options for him. Kempf is less willing to let Mussorgsky take the lead in Pictures from an Exhibition. His slightly forced account of that work, although impressive on some terms, lacks the light and shade that the best performances bring.

By Hugo Shirley