Tempos: Why Are They Always Too Slow ?

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Bro
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Tempos: Why Are They Always Too Slow ?

Post by Bro » Wed Jan 11, 2012 2:17 am

That seems to be the general rap in this forum. Certainly, we are told that the *pace* of a performance plays an integral role in how we perceive a work. Conductors tell us that the correct tempo is crucial. Many classical listeners, especially when young, might gravitate to the slashing sonorities and fiery speeds of a Solti or a Toscanini. We are constantly told of conductors like Furtwangler and Klemperer who, aparently, were "controversial" in their later years, particularly, for favoring slow tempos. I've heard one of the greatest (in my opinion) conductors of all time called "stodgy" by an eminent member of this board (who's opinion I generally respect).

However, is it possible that in our listening experience we are too concerned with the horizontal- the forward flow of the music, as opposed the the vertical- what is going on in the music the textures and interplay of the voices in the here and now. Could it be, that as Celibidache says, what we want is an outline of the music,.. and not a true experience of it's beauties and it's contours. We crave merely a rush of excitement.. Then I remember B.H. Haggin's conversation with Toscanini, in which maestro said that it is easy to make a work exciting at a fast tempo, indicating to me, that perhaps the ability to bring a work in at a slower pace is indeed a rarer and more accomplished art.

Can you think of any recordings (or group of recordings) or performances where you believe the tempo was too fast ? That it got in the way of the music or brought about a superficial interpretation ? What about Solti's Bruckner, or Boulez's Wagner, or Glenn Gould's Mozart, or Toscanini's Beethoven, these being well known examples ?

Holden Fourth
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Re: Tempos: Why Are They Always Too Slow ?

Post by Holden Fourth » Wed Jan 11, 2012 5:01 am

Richter at Aldebrugh with the 1st movement of Schubert's D960. Too slow or just right? Listen to Leibowitz's Scherzo from the LvB 9th - so fast and it sounds so good It's all relative to how the musician presents the music. The bizarre is Gould playing the Appassionata's first movement. It's almost like Richter's D960 and yet for me, while I wouldn't promote it, it works so well.

John F
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Re: Tempos: Why Are They Always Too Slow ?

Post by John F » Wed Jan 11, 2012 6:27 am

Today's historically informed performance movement has brought tempos, especially in slow movements, that are generally faster than those of mainstream musicians of the past, on records, as well as some in the present. And some mainstream musicians today have been influenced by HIP - James Levine's Mozart symphony cycle on DG is generally brisk. Years ago there was a complaint against what one writer called increasingly moderato tempos, as if the pulse of classical music were generally slowing down. But if that was the case, I don't believe it's so any longer.

I don't have a problem with slow or fast tempos per se, but of course I do have preferences according to the character of individual pieces and movements. A live performance of Beethoven's 8th by Knappertsbusch is ludicrously slow, and I object because the symphony is all about quickness and lightness on its feet. Some of Klemperer's recordings likewise seem to me so slow as to falsify the character of the music. On the other hand, Toscanini's tempos in Mozart's 39th symphony, except in the finale which will take all the speed it can get, are so fast and the performance so hard-edged in other ways as to rob the music of its special gracefulness. (As far as I'm concerned, Toscanini never "got" Mozart, and he said as much himself.)

Wagner's "Parsifal," at Bayreuth and elsewhere, is a kind of tug of war between the extremely slow, exemplified by Knappertsbusch and (surprisingly) Levine and Toscanini, and the unseemly hasty, as with Boulez and Clemens Krauss. The middle ground does not lie exactly midway; the outer acts should not be hurried, while Act 2 should not bog down.

Recently I went to a New York Philharmonic concert in which Jeffrey Kahane conducted Mozart's Symphony #33 in B flat with fast tempos in all the movements, so fast in the finale that the reduced string section had all it could do to maintain ensemble, and listeners not as familiar with the piece as I am would have been challenged to grasp and respond to what's happening in the music. Karl Böhm said that tempos should not be too fast for the audience, not just the players, and while he could sometimes be a plodder, in the recording studio but not before a live audience, I think he was right.

Toscanini was also right when he said that fast tempos are intrinsically more exciting, and many of his own recordings with the NBC Symphony bear him out. But music isn't always or even usually about that kind of excitement. When the tempos a musician takes are consistently on the fast side - or, indeed, on the slow side - they can seem to be his tempos applied to the music from the outside, rather than inherent in the music itself. Artur Schnabel's Beethoven sonatas are neither one nor the other; he often takes fast movements faster than other pianists and slow movements slower. I'm not saying they aren't his tempos, of course they are (except in the Hammerklavier Sonata in which he follows Beethoven's very fast metronome marks, or tries to), but they're evidence that he wasn't in the grip of his own temperament but approached each movement on its own terms. That's the kind of musician for me.
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Re: Tempos: Why Are They Always Too Slow ?

Post by Ricordanza » Wed Jan 11, 2012 6:37 am

This topic brought to mind a live performance, rather than a recording. Here was my reaction to one piece in Jonathan Biss' 2009 piano recital:
Chopin’s Barcarolle, which began the second half of the program, is intended to evoke the song of a Venetian gondolier as he glides his boat through the canals. But this gondolier seemed in a hurry to get where he was going. The quick pace of this performance diminished the opportunity to relish the full beauty of this work.

barney
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Re: Tempos: Why Are They Always Too Slow ?

Post by barney » Wed Jan 11, 2012 8:24 am

Today's historically informed performance movement has brought tempos, especially in slow movements, that are generally faster than those of mainstream musicians of the past, on records, as well as some in the present.
This is very true. In my experience the trend today is for faster tempos across the board, although obviously a trend has many exceptions. The only concert I left at interval last year was the MSO playing Bach under the noted conductor Laborde whose tempi were so fast I thought they rendered the music incoherent. They were almost impossible to listen to, with musical lines and interplay destroyed. Some of my friends in the orchestra loved it; others agreed with me. I was astonished at the former - I don't think it is entirely subjective, and if it's so fast that the orchestra can't actually articulate all then otes, it's simply too fast. But there you go...

Heck148
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Re: Tempos: Why Are They Always Too Slow ?

Post by Heck148 » Wed Jan 11, 2012 9:35 am

there's more to it than just the metronome marking, or speed of the piece...

execution is vitally important.

a fast sloppy performance really accomplishes nothing...a slightly slower, but cleanly played performance will "sound faster" than the sloppy one...

slow tempos are affected as well - a slow, majestic tempo that has momentum, lift, forward movement will sound terrific. at the same tempo, a heavy, sluggish, hesitant performance will be stodgy and soporific in effect...

THEHORN
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Re: Tempos: Why Are They Always Too Slow ?

Post by THEHORN » Wed Jan 11, 2012 10:33 am

Actually , Solti's tempi were not always that fast - they were just very energetic and forward moving.
Many of Toscanini's NBC symphony recordings strike me as simply hectic and nervous , though not the ones with other orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia .
Klemperer's later performances performances were apparently too slow at times because of his physical disabilities in old age . Furtwangler was also not always particularly slow. In fact, many the live performances caught on recordings are highly energetic, and his Bruckner could be unusually swift.
For example, his live Bruckner 5th on DG from the 40s with the Berlin Phil. is about ten minutes shorter than
Klemperer's very broad and majestic recording from the 60s, the version on which I first got to know this masterpiece.
There are some musicologists who are convinced that the very brisk tempi in HIP Bach performances we hear today
we hear are NOT authentic, and that the tempi of the actual performances Bach supervised of his own music were
considerably slower than the HIP norm today . If only we had a time machine !
You should never trust any one,whether performer or musicologist, who claims to have found the absolutely right tempi for the music of any composer or of any individual work , because composers have been known to conduct their orchestral works at different tempi at different times, simply because their conceptions of how to do the music changed .
Brahms, for example, flatly rejected the notion that any of his works should be performed at the same tempi every time . The metronome can only indicate the tempi a composer chose AT ONE TIME. They change their minds,period . There can never be one definitive performance of any masterpiece .
over the years. The composer's intentions are not an absolute ,fixed thing .

Holden Fourth
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Re: Tempos: Why Are They Always Too Slow ?

Post by Holden Fourth » Wed Jan 11, 2012 3:16 pm

John F wrote:
Toscanini was also right when he said that fast tempos are intrinsically more exciting, and many of his own recordings with the NBC Symphony bear him out. But music isn't always or even usually about that kind of excitement. When the tempos a musician takes are consistently on the fast side - or, indeed, on the slow side - they can seem to be his tempos applied to the music from the outside, rather than inherent in the music itself. Artur Schnabel's Beethoven sonatas are neither one nor the other; he often takes fast movements faster than other pianists and slow movements slower. I'm not saying they aren't his tempos, of course they are (except in the Hammerklavier Sonata in which he follows Beethoven's very fast metronome marks, or tries to), but they're evidence that he wasn't in the grip of his own temperament but approached each movement on its own terms. That's the kind of musician for me.
Agreed on all counts and usually, Toscanini made it work very well with the '49 Eroica being a great example.

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Re: Tempos: Why Are They Always Too Slow ?

Post by Chalkperson » Wed Jan 11, 2012 6:20 pm

There is slow, and then there is Guiseppi Sinopoli... :mrgreen:

Whom I love BTW...
Sent via Twitter by @chalkperson

THEHORN
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Re: Tempos: Why Are They Always Too Slow ?

Post by THEHORN » Wed Jan 11, 2012 8:23 pm

One problem with recordings is that many listeners get accustomed to the tempi on certain recorded performances of any gven work and when they get to hear different recordings, they will sound either too slow or too fast to them.
This has certainly happened to me on more than a few times in the past, but having gotten to hear so many different recordings , I've become much more tolerant of different approaches .

John F
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Re: Tempos: Why Are They Always Too Slow ?

Post by John F » Wed Jan 11, 2012 8:45 pm

Chalkperson wrote:There is slow, and then there is Guiseppi Sinopoli...
He's slower than slow, he's come to a dead stop. :mrgreen:
John Francis

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Re: Tempos: Why Are They Always Too Slow ?

Post by IcedNote » Wed Jan 11, 2012 8:45 pm

THEHORN wrote:One problem with recordings is that many listeners get accustomed to the tempi on certain recorded performances of any gven work and when they get to hear different recordings, they will sound either too slow or too fast to them.
Great point. And I'd wager that oftentimes the FIRST one the person hears is the "correct" one.

-G
Harakiried composer reincarnated as a nonprofit development guy.

stickles
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Re: Tempos: Why Are They Always Too Slow ?

Post by stickles » Wed Jan 11, 2012 11:49 pm

That's easy:

slower tempi = fewer pieces needed to fill out a concert program! :lol:

many mistakenly equate slowness with profundity.

as orchestras get larger and larger, coordination problems may lead to slower tempi.

However, personally I don't think we are in a slow age of music. We are equally blessed with the presence of the Haitinks and the Gergievs alike.

barney
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Re: Tempos: Why Are They Always Too Slow ?

Post by barney » Thu Jan 12, 2012 5:45 pm

Heck148 wrote:there's more to it than just the metronome marking, or speed of the piece...

execution is vitally important.

a fast sloppy performance really accomplishes nothing...a slightly slower, but cleanly played performance will "sound faster" than the sloppy one...

slow tempos are affected as well - a slow, majestic tempo that has momentum, lift, forward movement will sound terrific. at the same tempo, a heavy, sluggish, hesitant performance will be stodgy and soporific in effect...
Obviously the discussion has to bear the truth of this post in mind. Maybe my ears are slower these days, but I like to hear the notes!

John F
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Re: Tempos: Why Are They Always Too Slow ?

Post by John F » Fri Jan 13, 2012 1:29 am

Well, you have to set an extraordinarily fast tempo to throw off today's top orchestras. I mentioned Jeffrey Kahane's New York Philharmonic performance of a Mozart symphony with its exceedingly fast finale, which the Philharmonic's string players coped with as the same orchestra probably couldn't even in Toscanini's day.
John Francis

barney
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Re: Tempos: Why Are They Always Too Slow ?

Post by barney » Fri Jan 13, 2012 7:53 pm

John F wrote:Well, you have to set an extraordinarily fast tempo to throw off today's top orchestras. I mentioned Jeffrey Kahane's New York Philharmonic performance of a Mozart symphony with its exceedingly fast finale, which the Philharmonic's string players coped with as the same orchestra probably couldn't even in Toscanini's day.
I think this is right. Technically, standards have probably never been higher. With regard to the Bach concert to which I referred, the musicians did not complain about playing so fast though some agreed with me that the music had been butchered. It was a stylistic, interpretive question, not a technical one.

Heck148
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Re: Tempos: Why Are They Always Too Slow ?

Post by Heck148 » Fri Jan 13, 2012 8:05 pm

barney wrote: Technically, standards have probably never been higher.
amongst the 2nd, 3rd, 4th rank, etc orchestras, definitely, this is true - those level orchestras are far better than in the past. for the top rank, tho, I'm not so sure....the level of virtuosity has always been pretty high.

THEHORN
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Re: Tempos: Why Are They Always Too Slow ?

Post by THEHORN » Sat Jan 14, 2012 11:00 am

Here's an interesting quote by Camille Saint-Saens : "There are two kinds of conductors :
the ones who are too slow, or those who are too fast ".

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Re: Tempos: Why Are They Always Too Slow ?

Post by hangos » Sat Jan 14, 2012 3:43 pm

Heck148 wrote:there's more to it than just the metronome marking, or speed of the piece...

execution is vitally important.

a fast sloppy performance really accomplishes nothing...a slightly slower, but cleanly played performance will "sound faster" than the sloppy one...

slow tempos are affected as well - a slow, majestic tempo that has momentum, lift, forward movement will sound terrific. at the same tempo, a heavy, sluggish, hesitant performance will be stodgy and soporific in effect...
Which is why some people rave about Barbirolli's Mahler 6th! :wink:
Martin

Heck148
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Re: Tempos: Why Are They Always Too Slow ?

Post by Heck148 » Sat Jan 14, 2012 8:41 pm

hangos wrote: Which is why some people rave about Barbirolli's Mahler 6th! :wink:
It can work negatively, as well - too many of Klemperer's scherzo mvts are just too slow - too much time elapses between notes - if the notes [say LvB #9/III] are short, which gives the scherzo effect, then there is too mch space, and the effect is grotesque, almost comically bad...if the notes are lengthened, to reduce the empty space, then the short, bouncy scherzo effect is lost...
there are limits on tempo variation...

hangos
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Re: Tempos: Why Are They Always Too Slow ?

Post by hangos » Sun Jan 15, 2012 9:11 am

Heck148 wrote:
hangos wrote: Which is why some people rave about Barbirolli's Mahler 6th! :wink:
It can work negatively, as well - too many of Klemperer's scherzo mvts are just too slow - too much time elapses between notes - if the notes [say LvB #9/III] are short, which gives the scherzo effect, then there is too mch space, and the effect is grotesque, almost comically bad...if the notes are lengthened, to reduce the empty space, then the short, bouncy scherzo effect is lost...
there are limits on tempo variation...
Agreed! And that's just from listening to Klemperer's scherzi in isolation ; when followed or preceded by for instance Toscanini's 1939 NBC Beethoven 9th scherzo,the effect is more than grotesque, more akin to playing a 78rpm record at 33 or 45rpm! :mrgreen:
Martin

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Re: Tempos: Why Are They Always Too Slow ?

Post by maestrob » Mon Jan 16, 2012 11:05 am

Correct tempo is all about balance: neither too fast nor too slow. Maazel (while he was in NY) seemed to deliberately choose tempi that were generally too slow, having the effect of the bottom dropping out of the music. OTOH, I once sat in the audience of an HIP group performing Bach's B minor Mass where the Gloria was so fast that the (unvalved) horns couldn't possibly articulate the notes. A fellow on my right complained about the "lousy horns," I quickly corrected him and put the blame squarely on the conductor for asking the impossible.

It's true that Toscanini never really shone in Mozart for some reason, but AT knew exactly what the right tempo was for every occasion (except perhaps for Ravel's Bolero :)).

As for Klemperer's Beethoven IX: well, IMHO, Klemperer just didn't get that symphony, for some reason. He also didn't get Mahler, altho his Bruckner was very fine.

All that said, tempo must be flexible, not rigid and mechanical: it's a flow, like a river, where musicality should rule the conductor's decisions. Orchestral musicians should be given room to breathe, and fulfill the notes, while continuously moving forward. Faster is really NOT always more exciting: musical tension is maintained by a fine sense of balance of musical energy.

It's been said that the human voice is the basis for Western music: I tend to agree with that viewpoint, especially in Romantic music.

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Re: Tempos: Why Are They Always Too Slow ?

Post by THEHORN » Mon Jan 16, 2012 11:46 am

Actually , the B minor Mass only uses one horn for the Quoniam Tu Solus Sanctus section. The rest uses trumpets. I remember playing the horn part for a performance. It's very difficult to come in for the one section while waiting through the rest and trying to get it right.
If you have other things to play during a work, it's not tas difficult. It makes you very nervous waiting.
I've heard some people compain that tempos have gotten much too slow in our day, and who long for the "good old days" when everything was so lively, and others complain that
everything has gotten too fast today. I'm confused . Both statements can't be true !
I heard several PBS telecasts and a number of WQXR boradcasts with Maazel and the NY Phil, and his tempi did not strike me as particularly slow.
Most of Klemperer's commercial recordings were made in the 50s and 60s for EMI when he was suffering from various physical disabilities and accidents which left apparently made him adapt unusually slow tempos. However, in his earlier days , he was reportedly exactly the opposite; a regular speed demon. He seems to have gone from one exteme to another.
But he suffered from bipolar disease, which I suppose explains this. Klemps also suffered a
stroke in his later years which left him paralyzed on one side .
There is a recording of the Mendelssohn Italian symphony with the Vienna symphony(not the Philharmonic) which I have heard where the Saltarello finale is the most maniacally fast
I've ever heard ! He lived a remarkable life, and the two volume biography by an author whose name I can't recall at the moment is quite absorbing .

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Re: Tempos: Why Are They Always Too Slow ?

Post by rogch » Mon Jan 16, 2012 12:54 pm

This is one of the reasons why i like conductor Philippe Herreweghe. His choice of tempo very often makes sence to me.
Roger Christensen

"Mozart is the most inaccessible of the great masters"
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