Chopin, Etude opus 10 no 9 in Chopin’s tempo

Chopin, Etude opus 10 no 9 in Chopin’s tempo – Wim Winters, piano Erard

There was a small ten minute time frame left after recording Beethoven’s 5 and the first page of his Hammerklavier. Mic’s and cameras were still in position (obviously), my trusty Erard a bit out of breath tuning-wise, the etudes of Chopin buried somewhere under Sweelinck and Bach. The kids would come in in a few minutes, and I kept telling myself the Chopîn could use some extra days of work, I just had been looking into it a few days, after a decade-long not having played any later music than Beethoven.

But that deep emotional connection with this F minor etude, the unheard emotional story that shined so strongly when played in the tempo he no doubts had in mind, was too strong to resist. I took the piece and decided right away to a) play it and record as it was and b) don’t think any further and just upload it to share it with you.

Listen to what happens when played in the historical reading of Chopin’s MM dotted 4th = 96, where, as was common deep into the 19th century, the note value stood for the ‘Tact’/Schlag/Mésure/Time and the number for the “Tacttheilen/Temps/Parts of the intended time”.

Just pay attention to the character this piece gets if played in a historically reconstructed tempo like this. The left hand, depicting almost the dramatical aspects of a world that rapidly changes through mechanization, where one almost hears the pulses of the steam train. Connecting people, or… taking them far from their home country.

Since the left hand so strongly has its own character in this tempo, the contrast with the right hand becomes even bigger. Moreover, no need anymore, like in today’s usual performances, to pull the handbrake every time that right hand calls for a kind of ‘sostenuto’ effect. Even not at the end, where the “train” slowly comes to an end, after a last big shock with 6 repeated (forte) octaves in the right hand. Pianists today take the smorz. of the previous bar as an excuse to slow the tempo down to almost half, in order to still be able to play those repeated notes, but that is at the minimum not what Chopin indicated in his score. It rips the piece also from his most -almost- scary effect, the contrast of those two bars. When decreasing the overall tempo so much as is always done today, the effect of the repeated, mechanical left hand is ripped of its essence, that only at the bottom f in the last line should come to its final end station.

We may be focused today very much still on progress, technique, virtuosity, more than we perhaps realize being part of a kind of post-industrial era, but in fact, this etude played in this way is far from easy. yes, it results in a tempo that is slower than usual today, but not really slow at all. And in case you believe you know this etude in a tempo reflecting the ‘modern’ reading of Chopin’s, MM, be aware that it is not. As is with very few tempi the case. Here, even Pollini is 10% under Chopin’s MM if we interpret the number as we do today. The last page in his performance will serve as a topic for our Wednesday video. The number of huge and sudden tempo shifts he makes there (and most other performers) are necessary, not only to give some room to the right hand’s claim on cantabile, but are technically necessary as well. Huge flasher I’d say to give the performer notice something is not in accordance to the composer’s wish. But hey, we do live in the post industrial era for a reason right?