Life in the fast lane

16:00, Dec 03 2012
He’s got rhythm: ‘‘When I play the piano I do feel that I push myself to the limit,’’ says British pianist Freddy Kempf, who plays Gershwin in Wellington on Friday.

Largely thanks to the 1996 film Shine, Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto has a reputation outside of classical music as being so difficult to play it can literally, as it did in the film, drive an aspiring pianist mad.

British pianist Freddy Kempf played the notorious Third with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra when he was last here two years ago. Rather than break down,  he stunned audiences with his performance.

The comparison of challenging himself is there with what he does in his spare time. Kempf, who lives with his family near in the Alps outside Munich, last week drove his diesel Audi at 270kmh.

''I guess I enjoy the thrill of playing or driving or whatever it is. When I play the piano I do feel that I push myself to the limit. It is a difficult activity. It tests memory, it tests co-ordination, it test physical strength - so that aspect creeps out into other parts of my life.''

But Kempf says he also reached 270kmh last week on Germany's speed limit-free autobahns to match his wife, violinist and concertmaster Katja Laemmermann. ''Until last week I never got above 260kmh. My wife had done 270 - but there's no real rivalry.''

Kempf, 35,  is one of world's most successful classical pianists. The son of a German financier father and Japanese mother, he was fascinated with music from an early age.


His parents even sawed off the legs of an old record player and gave it to him as a toy so he could play records. Kempf says his earliest memories were of hearing his father's Frank Sinatra albums and also being given a collection of Disney soundtracks, including The Jungle Book and Fantasia. Looking back, he realises that it was the piano or keyboard elements in the music that stayed with him. ''As a child you listen to whatever your parents have lying around. But I liked all the bits where you could hear the piano in the background. It must have been something about the piano that I liked.''

Aside from his impressive Rachmaninov two years ago, Kempf also wowed Kiwi audiences in 2007 when, on his first New Zealand visit, his programme included Bach and Chopin. But for his performance with the NZSO this week Kempf offers a significant contrast - performing three Gershwin piano concertos - I Got Rhythm Variations, Second Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra and Rhapsody in Blue.

The performance follows the release this year of Kempf's album Rhapsody in Blue.

But the pianist, who won the 1992 BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition, says performing Gershwin is always a big ask for any orchestra. ''It's not the easiest thing to put on because it's a massive orchestra. They need saxophones, they need a jazz drummer [and] a kit drummer. It's very difficult for the conductor. The CD has been a way to persuade orchestras to take the risk and do it.''

The doors that the CD has opened also please Kempf because neither I Got Rhythm or Second Rhapsody are played that often or recorded because of the demands they put on an orchestra. ''[Yet] they are very accessible pieces and the audience will really like hearing them.''

Kempf says, like many musicians, he listened to Gershwin's music long before he started playing it, due to its demands on pianists as well. ''It is tricky somehow. It is different from something like Rachmaninov's Three. The rhythms are more complex, the style is quite difficult to grasp. There's nothing else like it really.''

Kempf is also keenly aware that Gershwin's music has across the board appeal, well outside of classical music, despite being rooted as much in the classical traditions, as it is in acknowledging jazz. ''I have no idea why. I can't explain it,'' admits Kempf.

''Gershwin was always an amazing song writer. I think it's the song aspect. The song is what tends to communicate with people and he was so able to depict human emotions people can relate to.

''And it is such romantic music. That's also something everyone is touched by - those lovely big Hollywood melodies. The other thing is how well the orchestra is written for. That just can't be credited down to the orchestrator because Gershwin did come up with the material in the first place.''

After performing with the NZSO, Kempf finishes his engagements for 2012, but he will revisit Gershwin in the new year. ''Leonard Bernstein was quite well known for playing and conducting Rhapsody in Blue from the piano, so I think maybe one day there may a chance I will be doing this programme without a conductor."


Freddy Kempf plays with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Matthew Coorey, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, December 7, 6.30pm. The NZSO will also play Gershwin's An American in Paris, Bernstein's Prelude, Fugue and Riffs and Shostakovich's Tahiti Trot.

The Dominion Post