The Goldilocks school of Just Right

No that’s not Goldilocks up there – it’s George Bernard Shaw!  Whilst putting on his music critic’s hat, he once declared with great wisdom that the primary function of a conductor is to beat time.

Er, yeah – I think we might have guessed that!

But maybe not in the way he meant. You see, he meant that in beating time the conductor was setting the tempo – his point being that for any given work there is one tempo which is right. And other tempos (or tempi, if you must) which are not.

With this view I largely agree; but it doesn’t only apply to orchestras. It seems to me these days that many pianists, even those great virtuosos that should know better, often play much too fast (and sometimes too slow).

If it’s too fast the sense of the music becomes unintelligible, a meaningless gabble of sound. No chance for it to breath or convey an expansive thought. And because the professionals do it, so too do too many students. Often for no better reason than because they can. There’s no doubting the phenomenal technical skills of the present generation – if measured in accuracy and speed (and one might add volume!) it’s very probably considerably higher than ever before. But since when did music become an Olympic event?

The same applies at the other extreme – taken too slow all sense of continuity, line, and phrase are lost. I recall a memorable masterclass with Andras Schiff where he parodied a famous colleague by playing ultra slow with hugely ‘expansive’ rests and declaring, “You see, I am so profound because I am so slow. The slower I get, the more profound I become!” (The movement in question, in case you are interested, was the Adagio from Beethoven Sonata

GBS was right – for any given work there is a tempo that is right for the musical sense, and the tolerable range either side of that tempo is not very great. A true musician would be unable to bring himself to step beyond those boundaries. Even with the likes of Argerich and Yuja Wang, one might occasionally ask, ‘Well yes, most impressive, exhilarating, astonishing even, but is that really what the music means to you?’ Or one might put the opposite question to Baremboim. But never either to Wilhlem Kempff.

Related to that, I have two students preparing works at opposite ends of technical demands – one has the gently introspective Schumann ‘Scenes from Childhood’ and the other the mighty Bach/Busoni Chaconne. From the Schumann, a classic example of an excess of “tempo-induced-profundity” destroying the continuity is the genuinely profound final item, The Poet Speaks. But others in the set too (‘Dreaming’, ‘Almost too Serious’, ‘Child falling Asleep’) are equally at risk of being taken too literally!

In fact, if one is to perform the whole set it is rather nice to find an overall idea of tempo that works for all the pieces. That’s not to say they should all be played at one consistent tempo, but that there can be some feeling that the tempo of each individual piece is in harmony with that of the others. Without a shadow of doubt, the whole work is SO much more satisfying to hear in this way. And surely it’s more in keeping with Schumann’s intention, which was not to write instructional pieces for children, but an adult’s reflection of childhood.

Now much more controversially (oh goody!) let’s consider the Bach/Busoni Chaconne. Yes, we all know this is about how Bach, with astounding ingenuity, restated the same basic idea 64 times without ever repeating himself. But the Chaconne is absolutely not simply a set of variations – and that applies even more to Busoni (in this particular case). Busoni’s Chaconne is not a mere piano arrangement of an original violin solo. Even calling it a transcription belittles it. It’s substantially more than that; in fact, it’s a total reconstruction. The initial basic thought of Bach has been dismantled down to its very essence – and then reassembled in multilayered permutations (64 times), but using the entire resources of a new and foreign instrument of very different capabilities.

Yet how often it is played as nothing but a set of variations, complete with preposterous drama-filled fluctuations of tempo ranging from “profoundly” stately to undignified scramble. Such thoughtlessness utterly destroys the integrity of the massive edifice Busoni constructed.

Andante maestoso, as the score is headed, is hardly a license for extreme “profundity”. Nor does Più vivo at the end provide an excuse to suddenly double or even treble the pulse. It doesn’t help that Busoni plastered throughout the score multiple expressive indications which many students (and so-called great pianists) choose to interpret as grandiose tempo variations. They are not. They are clarifications of where the music is going. In most cases the required shift in emphasis Busoni has already provided with a change in register, dynamics, or note values. Subtle inflections of tempo, to ‘go with the flow’, are surely all he meant.

There is only one pianist I have heard who’s managed to find a unified tempo that serves the entire 64 restatements in all their variety. His name is Konstantin Scherbakov, and when the work is played in that way it takes on a dignity, a majesty, an Almighty-inspired truth. It becomes so powerful that pianist and audience together cannot help but bask in sense of fatherly approval from J.S.Bach himself. Not for nothing has it been said of Scherbakov’s playing “As if there were no other interpretation.” (Frankfurter Allgemeine).

And wouldn’t we all like that to be said of us!