Kempff was born in Jüterbog, Germany and studied in Berlin and Potsdam. He toured widely throughout contintental Europe and much of the rest of the world, but did not make his first London appearance until 1951, and did not play in New York until 1964. He died in Positano, Italy.
Truly one of the greatest pianists of 20th century and the "Poet of the piano", Kempff is celebrated today for his recordings of Ludwig van Beethoven, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Franz Schubert, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Liszt and Frederic Chopin. He had a long recording career with Deutsche Grammophon spanning sixty years. Kempff's recordings of the complete Beethoven and Schubert piano sonatas are regarded as some of the greatest ever made. His recordings of Schumann, Brahms, Liszt and Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 (with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra and Ferdinand Leitner) are also critically acclaimed.
Kempff also played chamber music with Yehudi Menuhin and Pierre Fournier among others. Particularly famous are the recordings of the complete Beethoven sonatas for violin and piano with Menuhin. He was also one of the most celebrated teachers of his time.
A lesser known activity of Kempff was also composing. He composed for almost every genre. His second symphony was premiered in 1929 at the Gewandhaus, Leipzig by Wilhelm Furtwängler. His Bach transcriptions remain popular today.