Slowly, and with feeling

The opening track of pianist Lucas Debargue’s debut album is a fleeting sonata by Scarlatti (K 208). It’s a miniature miracle of control, voicing and expression, its emotional impact helped in no small part by the pianist’s choice of tempo and tasteful use of rubato. Here and there he lingers over the more piquant harmonies or intervals, creating delicious moments of suspense and delayed gratification.

It’s a wonderful opener to a fine debut disc, and the tempo of the piece has the effect of drawing the listener in, encouraging concentrated engagement with music and performer. In a live performance, opening a concert with a slow or slower work can have a very special effect on the audience: it causes them to focus on the music, to listen intently.

Tempo can have a profound effect on the way we respond to music. Upbeat or rapid music can raise the heart rate, blood pressure and skin response, making us more excited, more alert (why else do people choose fast-paced music as the soundtrack to exercise such as running or cycling?). Conversely, slow music is often used for meditation or relaxation because it has the effect of slowing the heart rate which makes us feel more calm. Listeners, especially the non-specialist listener, will normally equate slowness in music, particularly in classical music, with seriousness or more profound emotional content, and a performer’s choice of tempo can deliberately lead the listener into a particular emotional realm.

Some well-known works now seem to come with “standardised” tempi which have been set in stone by certain performers, critics, teachers, recordings, scholars and so forth. Take the Marche Funèbre from Chopin’s Piano Sonata No 2, for example: more often than not this is played as a ponderous Lento which immediately evokes (for those of us of a certain age) the passing of Soviet leaders. It’s sombre and gloomy, but if the tempo is increased very slightly, in the right hands it becomes majestic and proud, the contrasting Trio lyrical and eloquent. Similarly, the funeral march from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, Op 26 (which was played at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral): this is actually marked Maestoso (“majestic”) and too plodding a tempo will rob the music of its heroic grandeur (and Beethoven is quite specific in his marking in the score that this movement is a funeral march on the death of a “hero”).

I wonder whether audiences have received notions about the speed of certain works, notions which are perhaps inculcated in them by certain acclaimed pianists, critics, and benchmark recordings where a not inconsiderable “bending of the rules” of the score has taken place and a new standard way of performing the work is thus established and acknowledged by many to be the “right” way (the subject for a future article).

Perhaps one of the most extreme examples of tempo “rule bending” comes from the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter in his reading of the first movement of Schubert’s G major Sonata, D894, where his interpretation of the Molto moderato tempo marking really pushes the boundaries of what is understood by the term “moderato”. Moderato usually means “not rushing or dragging” and Schubert often uses the German marking “mässig” in relation to Moderato, which implies the calm flow of a measured allegro. Coming in at 25 minutes (the length of an entire Beethoven piano sonata), Richter’s version is not rushing anywhere! For some this Moderato-verging-on-Adagio is far too slow, but there is, for me (and others), something about the concentrated, meditative yet expansive quality which Richter brings to it which convinces. Not everyone can pull it off, and most pianists prefer a walking pace moderato. In the right hands, the first subject of the movement retains some of the same qualities which Richter brings to it. Here is Sokolov, where his treatment of the dotted rhythms brings a lightness and dance-like quality to the first subject:

And here is Richter:

I’ve been pondering the nature of tempo, in particular slowness in music, as I continue to work on Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata, D959. As noted in earlier articles on this work, the second movement preoccupies pianists, scholars and audiences more than any of the other movements of the sonata. It is generally acknowledged to be the most extraordinary piece of music ever written by Schubert, and many believe it is a direct musical manifestation of his mental state and his response to his illness (advanced syphilis), with its melancholy opening and closing sections, and frenzied middle section.

In terms of its tempo, it is marked Andantino, a rather ambiguous direction: as the diminutive form of Andante, Andantino should indicate a slower tempo than Andante, but  since the 19th century it has actually came to mean the opposite. It is absolutely not the same as Adagio, which means slow and stately, yet some pianists, who shall be nameless, treat this movement of the D959 with an almost funereal slowness, perhaps in the belief that slow equals profound emotion and seriousness, thus heightening the audience’s perception of the composer’s feelings of depression, melancholy, despair, impending death etc.

By choosing to take the Andantino at a funereal tempo, I feel the pianist is at once misinterpreting the direction indicated by the composer and forcing his or her opinion of how the music should sound upon the audience, emphasising the belief that the slower the speed, the more profound the music will appear. In fact, I am not even sure this is done deliberately: the interpretation may have been handed down to that pianist from a teacher or mentor, or is an imitation of another, greater pianist’s interpretation….. But for me, the profundity and emotional depth comes not from the tempo, but from the way in which the music is structured and organised.

So how does Schubert create such extremely emotional music? First, the key of the movement is curiously alien from the first movement – and yet it shouldn’t be because it is cast in f-sharp minor, the relative minor of A Major. But the opening movement avoids proper references to this harmony except for a few places towards the end of the exposition and thus the second movement seems very remote indeed. Secondly, there is the sense of stasis which Schubert creates in the opening section. The movement begins with a poignant melody full of sighing gestures portrayed by falling seconds over a simple barcarolle-like accompaniment. The hypnotic main melody recalls ‘Der Leiermann’ from Winterreise, and an almost static quality is created in the opening section through restrained melodic repetitions within a narrow register. It feels constrained and restricted.

Daniel Barenboim has described the opening section of this movement as “a melancholy folksong”, a description which has informed my approach, and which for me suggests a lilting rather than a plodding tempo. Played well, at around 90 BPM (the speed at which I choose to play it), the lyrical melody with its sighing gestures creates a feeling of stasis and melancholy contemplation without the need for extreme slowness.

Some may argue that a faster tempo will lessen the impact of the middle section, but in my experience, as a player and listener, this is not the case. Again, it is Schubert’s careful handling of material which creates the drama. The middle section unfolds like a Baroque fantasia, improvisatory in character and growing ever more dramatic with extremely harsh modulations. The music continues to build with increasing savagery via extreme registers, the use of trills to sustain tension, and the sub-dividing of notes to create thicker textures, increased propulsion and a sense of “hysteria”. The music eventually arrives at c-sharp minor, culminating in dramatic fortissimo chords. After this climax, a recitative-like section follows, repeatedly disrupted by sforzando chords. It is as if we have run up a mountain with Schubert, stared into the abyss, and then pulled back from the edge of the cliff at the last moment. Or to have been battered by a fierce storm only to look up and see a shaft of light in the louring sky as the music settles back into the landscape of the opening.

Of course there are some very fine performances in which the performer’s choice of tempo for this movement is decidedly slow, and while these are not to my taste, I can understand why the pianist may have made that particular interpretative decision. I have compiled a playlist to offer some comparison between different performances – it is interesting to note the wide range of timings, from a mere 6:16 to 9:25. I have also included some recordings of the opening movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op 27/2 (‘Moonlight’), another work in which the choice of tempo is quite varied.