Wilhelm Walter Friedrich Kempff was born in Jüterbog, Germany, on November 25, 1895. His father, also named Wilhelm Kempff, fame from a line of respected church organists, and first taught his son music and keyboard playing. Young Wilhelm had lessons with Ida Schmidt-Schlesike, then entered the Berlin Hochschule für Musik at the age of nine, to study composition with Robert Kahn and piano with Heinrich Barth. In 1914 he went to study at the Viktoriagymnasium in Potsdam, then returned to Berlin to continue his training at the Hochschule. He also entered the university, studying philosophy and music history. In 1916 he toured with the Berlin Cathedral Choir through Germany and Scandinavia, as pianist and organist. In 1917 he appeared at the Berlin Singakademie in a piano recital made of primarily of big works: Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" Sonata and Brahms' "Variations on a theme of Paganini." In 1918 he made his first concerto appearance with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, a venue where he would frequently appear over the years. With the end of World War I he was able to expand his career to an international stage. He maintained an impressive concert life over the next several decades, drawing acclaim from his appearances in Europe. South America, and Japan while becoming particularly treasured for his commanding performances of the central German Romantic piano classics from Beethoven to Brahms, plus Chopin. His career continued without interruption except for the years of World War II.
For some reason he put off performing in England and North America until late. His first London recital was not until 1951, and his American debut, in New York, was as late as 1964. Therefore it took the English-speaking world to catch up to what most of the rest of the world already recognized, which is that he was one of the most important and impressive performers in the Austro-German classic piano tradition. He also built an important presence as a teacher, particularly of accomplished students. He became director of the Stuttgart Hochschule für Musik from 1924 to 1929, and conducted master classes there. In 1931 he founded a summer course held at the Marmorpalais, Potsdam, also for master students, along with Edwin Fischer and Walter Gieseking. These lasted until 1941. Beginning in 1957 he directed Beethoven studies at Positano, Italy. As a performer he stressed lyricism, charm, and spontaneity in music, particularly effective in intimate pieces or passages. He always strove for a singing, lyrical quality, occasionally slipping into a slight degree of affectation in his phrasing. He avoided extreme tempos and display for its own sake. He left recordings of most of his repertory, including the complete sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert. He performed to an advanced age, often concertizing past his eightieth birthday. He appeared as a soloist in 1979 with the Berlin Philharmonic, marking an association with them that spanned over sixty years. He died in Positano on May 23, 1991, at the age of 95. ~ Joseph Stevenson