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In an effort to put their stamp on a work or “breathe new life”
into it, I’ve found that certain conductors resort to idiosyncrasies
of interpretation when performing familiar “warhorses” of the
orchestral repertoire; i.e., an extra long pause here, an unusual
accelerando there, etc. Therefore, it was refreshing to hear
Antonín Dvořák’s “Symphony No. 9 ‘From the New World,’”
and Richard Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben,” performed without
evidence of these exaggerations. The works were filmed in
the mid 1970’s for the BBC and are a part of a new DVD
series by ICA Classics, released in 2011.

The featured conductor was Rudolf Kempe (1910-1976),
and both concerts were live performances recorded at the
Royal Albert Hall. “Ein Heldenleben” was recorded in
August 1974 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and the
“New World Symphony” was recorded with the BBC
Symphony Orchestra, approximately one year later.

This was the first time I’d seen footage of Kempe conducting,
and I was impressed with the clarity of his baton technique,
as well as the transparency and musicality of these performances.
The “rightness” of the phrasing in both works made them sound
particularly satisfying. Inner voices were brought out without
drawing undue attention, and fit perfectly into the whole.
I’m making these observations in spite of the fact that both
concerts were recorded in mono.

Kempe graduated through the conducting ranks the
old-fashioned way, via opera houses in Germany. He began
conducting in England in 1953, while visiting with the Munich
State Opera. Soon he had established a reputation not only
at Covent Garden, but also with various great English orchestras
and in 1955, he was named Associate Conductor of the Royal
Philharmonic Orchestra with Sir Thomas Beecham.
Upon Sir Beecham’s death in 1961, he assumed the title of
Principal Conductor, and was appointed Conductor for Life
in 1963. This would prove to be a long and fruitful relationship.
Unfortunately, due to extremely difficult working conditions,
Kempe stepped down from the post in 1975. For the last
remaining months of his life, he assumed the directorship of
the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Therefore, this DVD is sort of
an epitaph to his relationship with the Royal Philharmonic
Orchestra, as well as a document of his short-lived post
with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

These are revelatory performances of familiar repertoire,
and I found the color footage satisfying on many levels.
This was wonderful music making by a great conductor
who was obviously overshadowed by his more famous
contemporaries. I’m truly glad that I watched this
90-minute DVD!