I cannot deprive you, dear readers, of the transformative experience that I had earlier on today while listening to Wilhelm Kempff’s interpretation of Beethoven’s piano sonata op. 27, no. 2. I do not know when this video was filmed, but I suspect that Kempff, who was born in 1895, must have been well into his eighties at the time of this recording.
What I wrote elsewhere about the quality of Gerhard Oppitz’s playing, namely the imperturbable will to shape large scale formal developments with an almost maddening calmness; here in the playing of his teacher Wilhelm Kempff it finds its purest model. From a rather unassuming beginning to a breathtakingly beautiful transition in the middle section back to the now completely transformed reappearance of the first theme, this interpretation seems to command and manipulate time and space around us. Take for instance the section starting around 2:08 in which we hear a three note motive that gradually morphs into the return of the first theme (3:19). This miraculous descent into the seemingly well-known realms of the first theme is accomplished by an extraordinary transitional passage (2:25 – 2:50) in which Kempff, step by step, reduces the rhythmic physiognomy of the music, up to a point where we can only hear a slowly rotating mass of sound (2:44 – 2:50). At this point, time seems to be suspended and we are left alone with memories of abandoned melodies only. Within these six seconds of complete cessation we are so far from everything that surrounds us, that the return of a clearly discernable motive at 2:51 feels now almost painful to us and can only be eased by a return to the familiarity of the first theme (3:18).
I don’t know how to better express what Kempff’s interpretation does to me, than to suspect that it seems to let me glimpse – for a few moments only, and from the slightly obstructed viewpoint of a young person – into the understanding of time by an old artist whose experience in life goes infinitely beyond my own. What it seems to be telling me is that maybe in the end, all that matters is the moment we live in, those six seconds of music that can make a difference.