Rudolf Kempe was born into a family in which music played little part, but when he was six he began to have piano lessons, taking up the violin when he was twelve and also the oboe; his teacher was Johann König, the first oboe of the Dresden Staatskapelle. Two years later he enrolled at the Music High School in Dresden, 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 Kempe accepted the same position in the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (also the orchestra of the Leipzig Opera), in which he played under many distinguished conductors including Beecham, Busch, Furtwängler, Erich Kleiber, Klemperer, Schuricht, Richard Strauss and 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 Gewandhaus 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.’ After joining the Leipzig Opera as a répétiteur and assistant conductor, Kempe was soon entrusted with substantial repertoire works such as Der Freischütz, Carmen, Le nozze di Figaro, Arabella, and Madama Butterfly.
Although Kempe entered military service in 1942, he was quickly 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 Keilberth’s departure as chief conductor. Kempe’s earliest recordings date from this period and include a complete account of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. During 1951 and 1952 he conducted at the Vienna State Opera, in the latter year succeeding Georg Solti as chief conductor at the Munich State Opera, where he stayed until 1954. He made his British debut conducting this company in a highly successful series of performances of Strauss’s Arabella at Covent Garden in the autumn of 1953, after which he was invited back to conduct at the Royal Opera House regularly, his first appearance with the Covent Garden company in fact taking place during the following month with Strauss’s Salome. Kempe was invited to conduct Wagner’s Ring cycle 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.
Despite serious illness in 1956 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 Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. He also continued to appear regularly at Covent Garden until 1960, the year in which he made his debut at the Bayreuth Festival, conducting the Ring. As Sir Thomas Beecham’s health declined during 1960, bringing the future of his Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) into question, 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 Beecham’s death in 1961, and remained with it, apart from a short hiatus in 1963, until 1975. Together orchestra and conductor gave many memorable concerts in the United Kingdom 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.
Following the death of Hans Rosbaud in 1962, 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 Munich Philharmonic Orchestra in 1967, a position he held for the rest of his life, and in the following year 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. Kempe 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 before his untimely death in May 1976.
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. Kempe 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. Kempe’s recordings of Richard Strauss’s music, which demand true conductorial virtuosity, probably stand as his greatest monument. 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 Berlin Philharmonic, 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 RPO, of Don Juan, which was coupled with 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 Ring 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 Bamberg Symphony Orchestra.
Kempe recorded all the Beethoven symphonies for EMI with the Munich Philharmonic 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 Berlin Philharmonic should also be noted. He was an especially sympathetic interpreter of Brahms and his EMI recordings of the four symphonies, the Violin Concerto with Yehudi Menuhin, and of Ein Deutsches Requiem with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra 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 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 Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. Kempe also recorded many lighter pieces for EMI. Two collections of Viennese music with the Vienna Philharmonic 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.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).