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Chopin, Etude op. 10 no. 9 played by Wim Winters, in "Chopin's tempo". (Read 4378 times)

Offline alexjr1543

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I'm curious as to what you guys think of this. Just so we're clear, this is not me playing. I could only dream of having an actual Erard. Or a clavichord or organ, for that matter.

Wim Winters has argued a lot in his videos that metronome markings, particularly of that era, should be interpreted differently from how they are today. That is, it should be interpreted as half the speed of the modern interpretation. The idea, I believe, is that, on a mechanical metronome, modern tempo counts each beat as the time it takes for the pendulum to move from one side to the other, but Winters argues that historical tempo counts each beat as the time it takes for the pendulum to move from one side to the other and then back again, completing one full cycle. I personally understand it as this: considering a sine wave, modern tempo takes the length of the beat as the distance between two zeros, whereas historical tempo takes a full period of the wave, or the distance between two peaks. (I apologize to the less mathematically-oriented people.)

One important argument he makes in this regard is that for most written tempo indications in the time of Chopin and earlier, particularly in editions such as Czerny's, not even the greatest virtuosos would be able to play most of those works in full tempo according to the modern interpretation, and even if they could, it would not sound good at all and a lot of the meaning would be lost.

This video, and the playlist in which it is found, by Wim Winters, explains this in more detail:

Personally, thinking about it, I find myself agreeing with this view, and I am convinced by his arguments. In terms of my own personal experience, let us consider the first movement of Beethoven's Waldstein sonata. Whenever I play it in "full tempo", in the slow, sentimental parts (namely the second subject group of the exposition), I can never achieve the emotional effect I want to achieve no matter how hard I try, because it is simply too fast. However, when I played it in "half tempo", I was able to achieve this very easily. I noticed this even while I was studying the piece with my piano teacher several years ago, long before I was even aware of this information.

Since Wim Winters' videos are one of very few sources where I see this discussed, I'm just curious: what do you guys have to say about this?

Offline beethovenfan01

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Yes and no.

I do agree that with some composers (Schumann for instance), the metronome markings a bit beyond ridiculous.

I do think that some songs sound a lot better while being played in a slower tempo than marked (or as being traditionally expected). However, more important than the metronome marking I think is the expression marking: "Largo--slow," "Andante--Walking Speed," "Allegretto--Playfully," "Allegro--Fast," "Presto--Insanely fast." Other adjectives get added on to further specify the intent. This is all very subjective--what sounds fast and agitated to one person is not necessarily fast and agitated to another.

For example, there is no excuse to play Liszt's transcendental etude Wilde Jagd at half tempo when Liszt himself could crank it out in less than 4 minutes. Sorry to pull out the extreme example, but do I make my point? Also, there are many, many pianists who can play these pieces at the tempo they were written in, without cutting it in half. I myself can play Waldstein (the first movement) at full tempo ... well, kind of.

While there is one kind of beauty in taking things slow, there is another in playing a piece fast enough to see a larger overarching structure, such as there usually is in a faster piece (like Waldstein). This is lost when playing it at half tempo.

By the way, this isn't the first time that tempo interpretation has become a hot topic on this forum ...  :P Other people who comment, please be civil and courteous.
Bach Chromatic Fantasie and Fugue
Beethoven Sonata Op. 10 No. 1
Shostakovich Preludes Op. 34
Scriabin Etude Op. 2 No. 1
Liszt Fantasie and Fugue on BACH

Offline martinrdb

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Re: Chopin, Etude op. 10 no. 9 played by Wim Winters, in "Chopin's tempo".
«Reply #2 on: September 16, 2018, 10:29:33 AM »
Liszt is certainly an important figure.  He was taught by Czerny and a close friend of Chopin.  Liszt would certainly have known what both Czerny and Chopin meant by their metronome markings. It is also quite likely that if Wim Winters is right, Liszt might well have played some of the works rather faster. 

Did Liszt provide metronome marks for studies?  I thought that, along with Mendelssohn, Liszt was somewhat contemptuous of the metronome, claiming that musical judgement should decide.

The argument is that before the metronome, the obvious tempo guide was a pendulum, for which one beat was a full swing, there and back.  Using a metronome in the same way gives two 'ticks' to the beat.

Czerny gives metronome markings for Bach that only make sense at half the apparent value.  Schumann gives numbers that would imply he did not understand his own music.  Claims that earlier pianos can be played a lot faster are made by those who have never tried.  Some of these pianos may have been lighter in touch, but this does not mean they had the action that such fast speeds would demand. 

Accepting the metronome markings implies believing an astonishing lack of musicality amongst the leading musicians or that all their metronomes were faulty.

Offline kalirren

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Re: Chopin, Etude op. 10 no. 9 played by Wim Winters, in "Chopin's tempo".
«Reply #3 on: November 09, 2018, 09:30:10 PM »
There is no reason to believe that the metronome marking was to the double tick. Some people adhere to this notion because they cannot fathom how to execute at the speeds earlier performers called for. The heaviness of many modern piano actions contributes to the illusion of impossibility. Yet the truth is that none of the controversial metronome markings are actually impossibly fast, even on a modern instrument.

Accepting the metronome markings implies believing an astonishing lack of musicality amongst the leading musicians or that all their metronomes were faulty.

Yep. Pretty much, you said it. I regularly speed up videos on Youtube to 1.5x or even 2x, especially of Bach, and sometimes of Chopin. Many modern recordings are senselessly slow.

Take Nocturne Op. 27 #2 for example, which has a notably controversial original metronome marking. Chopin wrote Lento Sostenuto, 50 BPM to the dotted quarter. Most people think, "In what world is 50 BPM to the dotted quarter Lento Sostenuto?"

In reality, 50 BPM is very much Lento Sostenuto in comparison to other waltzes, which run easily 80 BPM to the triple step. Note also that at 50 BPM to the dotted quarter, the run in measure 52 reaches 1200 BPM, which is one note every 50 ms, and is in fact nearly as fast as the human ear can possibly distinguish. (Notes register as simultaneous when struck 25-30 ms apart.) This is very intentional; I believe it to be the fastest passage Chopin ever wrote! So the intended tempo of this Nocturne is actually quite well constrained; it can't go any faster because the fastest run would blur, and it can't go any slower because the base dance rhythm would be lost. Chopin very helpfully wrote 50 BPM to the dotted quarter to tell us exactly where the sweet spot was.

And yet what do modern recording artists do? They conclude that 50 BPM is "senselessly fast" and then they play this Nocturne so slow as to destroy the underlying waltz of the piece. "An astonishing lack of musicality", indeed. Valentina Lisitsa also noticed the general slowness of peoples' performances of this Nocturne - she accordingly called her own performance of it "far under tempo" even though it's faster than most others.

Modern performers also ignore a lot of contemporaneous evidence from spectators of Bach & Beethoven describing them as playing "very fast" (no specific piece), "as fast as was possible on the instrument" (premiere of Piano Concerto #4) respectively. Moreover, because concert halls were smaller, instruments were built lighter and faster, so "as fast as possible" was likely even faster than we may think. martinrdb, the previous poster, doesn't believe this, and would likely claim that I've never played such an instrument. I have. And I stand by the usual assertions.

If you've ever played a clavichord, you know that the speed boundary for a run is aural, not instrumental. It's much easier to play a run so fast that it just turns into a glissando. It's actually harder to do so on a modern hammer-action piano, because the hammers take time to travel to the string. Piano builders have worked for centuries now to get the hammer action up to the speeds once enjoyed by the clavichord. Yamaha is basically there. Steinway has long lagged in the quality of its actions, but I think even a Steinway can do it now.

The conceit is that we all get used to what we have heard, and think it sublime merely because it is what we are accustomed to and know, irrespective of the actual challenges posed.
Beethoven: An die Ferne Geliebte
Franck: Sonata in A Major
Vieuxtemps: Sonata in Bb Major for Viola
Prokofiev: Sonata for Flute in D Major