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The Pianist Wilhelm Kempff is dead

The friend of Leonard Bernstein died at 95 * He played often in the United States

By B. John Zavrel


Munich. The famous pianist Wilhelm Kempff has died at the age of 95 in Positano, Italy. The city government announced the death of the piano virtuoso on Friday, May 24, 1991. Kempff still performed at the age of 80 with his friend Leonard Bernstein in New York City. The friendship between the two has developed after the Second World War. Bernstein praised the German: "He is one of the most interesting personalities I ever met in my life."

After 1945 Kempff lived in Ammerland near Munich. His adopted home became the Italian town Positano near Naples, where he suffered a stroke. Kempff was a pianist with an unmistakable, unique touch. His interpretations of piano works of the classic and romantic styles were always stamped with a highly personal style. With the pianist Cortot, also Kempff played at the opening of a great art exhibition of his friend Arno Breker in the Orangerie in Paris in 1942 in front of an international audience. Kempff is immortalized in a magnificent bronze bust by Breker.

Wilhelm Kempff, born on November 25, 1895 in Jüterbog near Berlin, came from a very musical family: the father was a royal music director and organist of the St. Nicolai Church in Potsdam, the grandfather was organist, his brother Georg was director of church music at the University of Erlangen.

Kempff grew up in Potsdam, studied music in Berlin and received there a thorough education as a pianist. Already in the 20's he began with an extensive touring activity which took him around the world. He performed in Japan as well as in South America and in the United States. To his friends belonged Eugen d'Albert, Georg Kulenkampff, Edwin Fischer and the legendary pianistin Elly Ney. Together with Roger Peyrefitte, Ernst Fuchs, Ronald Reagan, Dr. Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Salvador Dali and other personalities, also Kempff belonged to the Order of Alexander the Great for Science and Art.

His repertory ranged from the Baroque to the Romantic styles. He masterly interpreted the works of Bach, Mozart, Schumann, Brahms as well as those by Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, and Chopin.

Wilhelm Kempff gave his last public performance in Paris in 1981. The pianist, who was known world-wide as a great crowd-drawing attraction, enchanted once more the public with his incomparable art. His wife, countess Hiller von Gaertringen, announced after this concert that her husband was ill and would not perform any more. He had the Parkinson's disease. Kempff, who since 1955 had sought rest and tranquility after his demanding concert tours in his home in Ammerland at the Starnberger Lake near Munich, spent the last five years of his life in his house in the picture-pretty Italian town of Positano in the rocky bay of Salerno and Amalfi. Already in 1957 he had founded there a school for especially talented pianists, where he gave free instruction.

Five years ago Wilhelm Kempff lost his wife. He is survived by five children. His youngest daughter Diana, a writer, still lives in Ammerland

Besides his activity as a pianist, the versatile artist also composed music. He wrote symphonies, operas, piano concertos and chamber music, which, however, have been performed only on rare occasions. Autobiographical writings complement his life work.

In Wilhelm Kempff died one of the most significant pianists of this century, who put his stamp on whole generations of artists. Up to his last days Kempff showed a lively interest in the current developments in music around the world.


May 24, 1991



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