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Controversial: Freddy Kempf enraptured the audience in the 1998 Tchaikovsky Piano Competition but was only placed third

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28 Jun 1999

Brilliant Kempf conquers Moscow

Briton's creative talent ensures he will join pantheon of great pianists, says LIONEL CHOI

YOU are only allowed to take one bow. It's a competition." Or so young British pianist Freddy Kempf was told during the finals of the 1998 Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow. And so he had no choice but to leave the explosion of cheers from the ecstatic audience which went on for some 20 minutes following his riveting back-to-back performances of the Tchaikovsky First and Rachmaninov Third concertos, even after the stage was cleared and the house lights in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire were turned off.

Busloads of screaming fans jammed the corridors to take a closer look at the young star, the hero of what is arguably the classical music world's most prestigious tournament.

Not since Texan pianist Van Cliburn's historic win in 1958 has any participant been granted such feverish rock-star treatment. And all this from a discerning Muscovite audience well-acquainted with their own unparalleled legacy of pianistic excellence.

It must, therefore, come as a genuine shock to know that Kempf was announced as only second runner-up after a "secret ballot". Two Moscow-trained Russians, who each received polite applause lasting a grand total of 30 seconds at the embarrassing prize-giving ceremony, took away the first two prizes.

The ensuing bitterness and furore from the audience, the press and even jury members set the classical music scene ablaze. Newspapers even ran bold headlines alleging surreptitious intervention by the mafia in the voting process. As if to make up for the perplexing results, the disgruntled jury was moved to instigate a unique additional cash prize as a special award to go with the audience-appreciation prize for young Freddy.

"In the years ahead it is Frederick Kempf, the third-place winner of the 1998 Tchaikovsky Competition, whose name will endure," said one of the jurors, Daniel Pollack.

Going by what the 21-year-old has achieved so far, one can understand why.

Born in 1977 to a Japanese mother and German father in the London suburb of Croydon and entirely English-trained by a line-up of illustrious teachers, including Ronald Smith and Christopher Elton, Kempf made his debut at the age of eight with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London.

He gained wider public attention when he won the 1992 BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition with a stunning final-round performance of Rachmaninov's Paganini Rhapsody, where precocious poetic insights in the slow parts, still a trifle four-square at that time, were heard alongside spine-tingling bravura in the sharper variations.

Following the controversy in Moscow, Kempf's coveted place in the international concert scene was secure, with a whole string of engagements lasting well into the new millennium, and a new exclusive recording contract with the Swedish label, BIS.

His eagerly-awaited debut disc of Schumann's piano works, released last month, will be followed by further recordings of Beethoven and Rachmaninov next year.

Recent recitals show a musician of generous spirit and formidable powers of communication, matched with an acute sense of drama, individuality, charisma, sweeping passion and transcendental virtuoso technique.

At the Second Round of the Tchaikovsky Competition, he gave a towering performance of Prokofiev's acerbic Sixth Sonata reminiscent of the old Russian piano school -- tough, gritty, yet hypnotic in intense inner concentration.

Over in America, he scaled emotional heights with an electrifying spontaneity in Rachmaninov's original version of the Second Sonata in Fremont, California, in February this year, an arresting performance that was reminiscent of his powerful survey of the same composer's Etudes Tableaux Op 39 in New York two years earlier.

Kempf is certainly no flashy acrobat. One recalls the mesmerising palettes of beautiful colours and enchanting poetry with as much relish as the imperious outbursts of virtuoso fire in his various uniformly mature and engaging recital performances of Beethoven's E major Sonata, Op 109.

There is also his eloquent, individual way with Chopin, as well as glowing lyricism in Schumann, a composer with whom he claims to have a special affinity.

It is no wonder that Moscow adores the young piano star, who returned to perform in Russia in April, drawing the highest praises and winning ovation after standing ovation.

If things continue to go as planned, one must prepare to roll out the red carpet, for there will certainly be space in the pantheon of great pianists for a genuinely brilliant and creative talent like Freddy Kempf's.

Lionel Choi is a freelance classical music reviewer

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