Monday, January 20, 2014

speed records

The Winter Olympics are coming up in a couple of weeks and I thought I'd opine on what would happen if they would let pianists compete along with the other athletes which is, of course, to set speed records.

Bigger, faster, stronger? Of course. In every human endeavor. The longest and hardest piano concerto. The loudest and fastest interpretation, and so on.

Really, though, it is just a chance for me to sit here comfortably while the snow falls outside and the wind threatens to blow my face off if it gets the chance, and go over some of my past recordings rather than braving death to go make a new one.

We'll start with something pretty recent. I mentioned, at a recent concert, that Scott Joplin had a rule about not playing ragtime fast and that a lot of pianists didn't care to hear it and that that was what set up the curious conflict in the first movement of Bill Albright's Grand Sonata in Rag that I played. On that concert I also played a little novelty piece called "Nola."

In the course of some internet research (such as to see if I had spelled the composer's name correctly) I found some other recordings of Nola online and happened to notice that they are about a minute or so faster than mine. That's a pretty wide gap. Now as it happens I had only played Nola  for a perilously short time before I played it on stage and got no practice right before the recording so I thought it would be wise to take a conservative tempo. However, I also felt that the piece had a certain elegance and suavity that way, and I didn't really see any need to play it any faster anyhow.  Obviously some other pianists don't see it that way. I'm going to stick by my tempo, and put up a sign "slowest recording of Nola on the internet" and see if I get any takers.

Here's Nola

I've made up for it, however. About a year ago I recorded Bach's "Little" Fugue in g minor at what is apparently at least 45 seconds faster than any of the other recordings I noticed on the web. It was a Tuesday evening right after choir practice and right before I had to drive across town for another appointment and I had about twenty minutes free to set up the equipment and do a couple of takes. I was tired and full of manic energy and I had just had enough time with the piece to be able to play it fluently and not yet enough time to play it comfortably. Which meant I played it quite fast. Given the miniature organ registration I used, however, I think it works rather well. I'll try it sometime again with an alternate approach. In the meantime, do I get a medal?


Often, as a professional, I'm likely to take a faster tempo than would an amateur. I can, given my technical facility. But it doesn't mean I always want to.

I remember a teacher at the conservatory who had a maddening obsession with tempo. The first week my chamber music partner and I would come in for a lesson on a piece we'd only been assigned the week before. Naturally it was a little on the slow side--we could play it, but weren't really comfortable enough to just let it fly, yet. She'd get out the metronome right away and give us the speed she wanted. The next week, having seen the piece for twice as long, and having really assimilated all the runs and jumps, we'd have that piece up much faster than it needed to be. By the third week it was just right. Given that "Goldilocks" phenomena, I've always noticed how the tempo of a piece can change, from too slow to too fast to settling in once you've gotten comfortable with it artistically. Most of the pieces in the pianonoise archive were recorded on precious little practice so one could consider this when listening to the artistic approaches, tempo and all. I've often thought of them as beta versions of the pieces that I simply don't have time to perfect given the eternal demands of next week. But I don't think the tempi would be all that different; I can usually get what I want, more or less.

What I want turns out to be variety. Each piece speaks to me differently and calls for a different tempo and mood. And this is where art and athletics differ. You don't see races to see who can be the slowest, or the most middle of the road. Most sports don't give points for style or individuality, and the ones that do have the most controversy and judging scandals and angry fans. You can argue over those because opinion matters in a sport like that, and everyone's is different. And right.

I'll leave you with one more recording, of one of J. S. Bach's Schubler Chorales, a piece called "Wake up! A voice calls to us" (though generally translated as "sleepers, awake"). I took this one on the quick side. I can still remember comments from disgruntled Youtubarians over a Cd recording of this piece by a famous organist. They thought he was in much too much of a hurry. Probably used to the grand registrations and broad tempi of the middle of the century when everybody was playing Bach that way, they just couldn't fathom somebody being in this much of a hurry.

Except for three reasons. One is that it is fashionable to take Bach faster and to play with more articulation and less heavy texture these days, which isn't necessarily a great reason except that the researchers in this area have reason to think this approach is more authentic. Another is that the Chorale tune itself is the slowest part of the piece (the nasally reed stop you hear about 45 seconds into the piece is playing the hymn that Bach's congregation sang) and at this speed you might not only recognize it, you can probably sing all the way through a phrase without collapsing. Also, the point of the hymn is to get people to wake up and stay vigilant (in anticipation of Christ's coming), not to relax and luxuriate--which also argues for a quicker tempo.


Those are my reasons. But I won't guarantee I won't slow down a little bit some time the next time I make a recording of "Wake up!" It was a hot day in July, after all.

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