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Rudolf Kempe (Conductor, Oboe)

Born: June 14, 1910 - Niederpoyritz, near Dresden, Saxony, Germany
Died: May 12, 1976 - Zürich, Switzerland

The eminent German conductor (and former oboist), Rudolf Kempe, was born into a family in which music played little part, but when he was 6 he began to have piano lessons, taking up the violin when he was 12 and also the oboe; his teacher was Johann König, the first oboe of the Dresden Staatskapelle. Two years later, at age 14, he enrolled at the Orchestral Scool of the Dresden Staatskapelle, where he continued to study with König as well as with Fritz Busch, Karl Schütte, Theodor Blumer and Kurt Striegel, and learnt the accordion as well as his other instruments. Having been engaged as the first oboist in the orchestra of the Dortmund Opera in 1928, two months later (1929) he accepted the same position in the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig (also the orchestra of the Leipzig Opera), in which he played under many distinguished conductors including Thomas Beecham, Busch, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Erich Kleiber, Otto Klemperer, Carl Schuricht, Richard Strauss and Bruno Walter: often during rehearsals he would have the full score on his desk as well as his own instrumental part. Kempe has revealed in interview how he came to be a conductor during 1935: ‘We were rehearsing Le nozze di Figaro. Paul Schmitz who was principal guest conductor at the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig wanted to listen to the second act from the back of the hall. There was no assistant conductor present, so he asked if anyone in the orchestra was ready to conduct the second act. At length he settled on me to take the podium. Fourteen days later, I had to conduct Lortzing’s Der Wildschütz, and that’s when I decided to quit the orchestra and to devote myself entirely to conducting.’ In addition to oboe, he played the piano regularly, as a soloist, in chamber music or accompanying. In 1933, the new Director of the Leipzig Opera invited Kempe to become a répétiteur and assistant conductor. He was soon entrusted with substantial repertoire works such as Der Freischütz, Carmen, Le nozze di Figaro, Arabella, and Madama Butterfly.

During World War II, Rudolf Kempe was conscripted into the army, in 1942. But instead of active service he was directed into musical activities, playing for the troops and later was given unofficial permanent leave to work at the Chemnitz Opera as a répétiteur and conductor; and after his discharge from the army in 1945 he returned there as first conductor, and subsequently as Chief Conductor from 1946 to 1948. In addition he conducted at the Berlin Staatsoper and in concert in Berlin, Dresden and Leipzig. For the 1948-1949 season he worked alongside Hermann Abendroth at the National Theatre Weimar, after which he was invited by Joseph Keilberth to join the Dresden Opera, initially as first conductor, and after Joseph Keilberth's departure as Chief Conductor. Kempe directed the Dresden Opera and the Dresden Staatskapelle from 1949 to 1952, making his first records, including Der Rosenkavalier (complete account), Die Meistersinger and Der Freischütz. ‘He obtains some superlative playing from the Dresden Staatskapelle,’ commented The Record Guide. He maintained a relationship with the Dresden Staatskapelle for the rest of his life, making some of his best-known records with them during the stereo era. His international career began with engagements at the Wiener Staatsoper in the 1951 season, for which he conducted Die Zauberflöte, Simon Boccanegra, and Capriccio.

Rudolf Kempe was invited to succeed Georg Solti as Chief Conductor of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich from 1952 to 1954, and was permitted by the East German authorities to do so without severing his ties with Dresden. He made his British debut conducting this company in a highly successful series of performances of Strauss’s Arabella at Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London in the autumn of 1953, after which the General Administrator, Sir David Webster, decided that Kempe would be an ideal Musical Director for the Covent Garden company. Kempe resisted the appointment, and did not accept the top job at any opera house after leaving Munich in 1954. He nonetheless conducted frequently at Covent Garden and was immensely popular there, conducting among other works, Salome, Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, Un Ballo in Maschera and Madama Butterfly, of which the critic Andrew Porter compared Kempe’s conducting favourably with that of Arturo Toscanini and Victor de Sabata. Kempe was invited to conduct Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen at Covent Garden in 1954, which he did with great succcess, preparing for these performances by conducting a cycle in Spain with an orchestra which required intensive coaching. He also made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera, New York in 1954, conducting Arabella (in English), Tannhäuser, and Tristan und Isolde; and appeared at the Salzburg Festival in 1955 leading Pfitzner's Palestrina. As a guest conductor, he frequently revisited Munich conducting mostly the Italian repertoire.

Despite serious illness in 1956 Rudolf Kempe now began to appear frequently as a guest conductor in the major international music centres, and to record an extensive repertoire for EMI, predominantly with the Berliner Philharmoniker. He also continued to appear regularly at Covent Garden until 1960, the year in which he made his debut at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, conducting Der Ring des Nibelungen, notable for multiple casting, with the role of Wotan split between Hermann Uhde and Jerome Hines, and Brünnhilde between Astrid Varnay and Birgit Nilsson.

Rudolf Kempe was associated with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) from 1955. As the orchestra's founder, Sir Thomas Beecham's health declined during 1960, bringing the future of his Royal Philharmonic Orchestra into question, Thomas Beecham took advice and offered Kempe the associate conductorship of the orchestra, which he accepted over a hastily-arranged lunch in London. Kempe became the Chief Conductor of the orchestra after Thomas Beecham’s death in 1961, and remained with it, apart from a short hiatus in 1963, until 1975 (from 1961 to 1962 Principal Conductor; from 1963 to 1975 Artistic Director). Together orchestra and conductor gave many memorable concerts in the UK and abroad; an early assignment, of which regrettably no sound recordings appear to have survived, was a series of concerts conducting the music of Delius at the 1962 Bradford Delius Festival. A member of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra later said of Kempe, "He was a wonderful controller of the orchestra, and a very great accompanist ... Kempe was like someone driving a racing-car, following the piano round the bends." Kempe abolished Thomas Beecham's male-only rule, introducing women into the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra: an orchestra without them, he said, "always reminds me of the army." In 1970, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra him Conductor for Life, but in 1975, he resigned his post with the orchestra.

Following the death of Hans Rosbaud in 1962, Rudolf Kempe was appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the Zürich Tonhalle Orchestra, becoming the orchestra’s Chief Conductor in 1965 and remaining with it in this position until 1972 despite his activities being once more curtailed by illness during 1963 and 1964. He was invited to become Chief Conductor of the Münchner Philharmoniker in 1967, a position he held for the rest of his life. With this orchestra he made international tours and recorded the first quadraphonic set of the L.v. Beethoven's symphonies. In 1968 he began work on his monumental survey with the Dresden Staatskapelle of Richard Strauss’s orchestral works for EMI. He returned to Covent Garden for a memorable series of performances of Strauss’s Elektra in 1973, and conducted Salome at the Orange Festival in 1974. He was invited to become Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra with effect from the autumn of 1975, but gave only a handful of concerts with this orchestra. The opening concert of the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts on July 16, 1976, in which he was to have conducted his BBC Symphony Orchestra in L.v. Beethoven's Missa solemnis, became a memorial concert for him following Kempe's untimely death in Zürich in May 1976, aged 65.

One of the great unsung conductors of the middle 20th century, Rudolf Kempe enjoyed a strong reputation in England but never quite achieved the international acclaim that he might have had with more aggressive management, promotion, and recording. Not well enough known to be a celebrity but too widely respected to count as a cult figure, Kempe is perhaps best remembered as a connoisseur's conductor, one valued for his strong creative temperament rather than for any personal mystique. Interpretively, he was something of a German Beecham. He was at his best - lively, incisive, warm, expressive, but never even remotely self-indulgent - in the Austro-Germanic and Czech repertoire.

Rudolf Kempe was greatly admired by orchestral players, often the harshest of critics. On the one hand in rehearsal he was quiet and undemonstrative, rarely raising his voice, always extremely courteous and very clear about his requirements; yet in performance his extraordinary technical clarity, his musical flexibility and infallibility, and his innate sense of drama could result in readings of great power. He combined all the key assets of the great conductor, above all being able to draw from the forces at his disposal performances which technically and interpretatively exceeded their own expectations of what they could achieve: the results were invariably music-making of the highest quality.

His discography was very large indeed and has increased since his death as recordings of radio broadcasts and of live opera and concert performances have become available. Rudolf Kempe’s recordings of Richard Strauss’s music, which demand true conductorial virtuosity, probably stand as his greatest monument. These recordings were only intermittently available outside of Europe in the LP days, but in the 1990's EMI issued them on 9 CD's. To set beside his superb account of all the orchestral works with the Dresden Staatskapelle already mentioned, there are fine recordings of Don Quixote and Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche with the Berliner Philharmoniker, and an excellent account of Ariadne auf Naxos. His first recording of Ein Alpensinfonie, made for RCA with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, is breathtaking, as are his recordings for Reader’s Digest, also with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, of Don Juan, which was coupled with Ottorino Respighi’s I pini di Roma. Of his live opera performances, those of Electra from London in 1958 and of Salome from Orange in 1974 capture some of the intensity of his conducting in the opera house. Equally outstanding are Kempe’s recordings of operas by Wagner: his studio accounts of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and of Lohengrin for EMI have long held centre stage in the commercial catalogue. Two recordings from the Bayreuth Festival are of note: his 1960 Der Ring des Nibelungen and the 1967 Lohengrin, which featured the Ulster soprano Heather Harper in radiant form. The 1954 Tannhäuser from the Metropolitan Opera has also appeared unofficially. Of other operas mention should be made of an early recording from Dresden of Der Freischütz, and of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, which he recorded for EMI with the Bamberger Symphoniker.

Rudolf Kempe recorded all L.v. Beethoven's symphonies for EMI with the Münchner Philharmoniker in the early days of quadraphonic sound, and as an adjunct to this set an earlier recording of the Symphony No. 3 ‘Eroica’ with the Berliner Philharmoniker should also be noted. He was an especially sympathetic interpreter of Johannes Brahms and his EMI recordings of the four symphonies, the Violin Concerto with Yehudi Menuhin, and of Ein Deutsches Requiem with the Berliner Philharmoniker are outstanding. Kempe’s qualities as a conductor made him particularly impressive in Bruckner’s music also; his ability to present the architecture of a work as a single span, together with his deep musical concentration, resulted in outstanding performances of the symphonies. His recordings of music by W.A. Mozart are regrettably few in number: an early (1955) Berlin account of the Requiem is the most substantial. Kempe was always strongly drawn to Slavonic music and his recordings of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 ‘From the New World’ and Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass are very powerful. Of less familiar repertoire two recordings stand out: Othmar Schoeck’s cantata Vom Fischer und syner Fru, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Symphony in F sharp, both with the Münchner Philharmoniker. Kempe also recorded many lighter pieces for EMI. Two collections of Viennese music with the Wiener Philharmoniker are notable, Kempe himself being of the opinion that one of his very best recordings was the account of Lehár’s Gold und Silber Walzer which he made with this orchestra.

As a conductor, Rudolf Kempe did record either the vocal or instrumental works of J.S. Bach. However, as the 1st oboist of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, he participated in many radio recordings of J.S. Bach's cantatas under the baton of the Thomaskantor Karl Straube; a few of those have been released on CD.

Source: Wikipedia Website (May 2015); All Music Guide Website (Author: James Reel); Naxos Website (Author: David Patmore); Photo 01: from the magazine Radiocorriere (1961); Phoros 02-03 from
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (May 2015)

Recordings of Bach Cantatas & Other Vocal Works




Karl Straube

Oboe, Oboe d'amore

Member of: Gewandhausorchester Leipzig
Radio (1931):
BWV 75, BWV 76, BWV 77, BWV 79, BWV 97, BWV 100

Links to other Sites

Rudoilf Kempe (Wikipedia)
Rudolf Kempe - Biography (AMG)
Ruidolf Kempe Bio (Naxos)

The Rudolf Kempe Society: Home [N/A]

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