Too Slow?

V. Lisitsa’s and M.Pollini’s Chopin Etude opus 10 n°12

Too Slow? V. Lisitsa’s and M.Pollini’s Chopin Etude opus 10 n°12

A few days ago, I have uploaded my version of the famous Chopin etude opus 10 nr 12 in C Minor, the so-called Revolutionary etude. As I am convinced that also Frédéric Chopin used the historical metrical readings for his metronome numbers, where every tick equals only half of the intended note value, I play this etude, indicated by Chopin as quarter note 160, in eigth note 160, which is exactly what this metronome number meant in those days.

As with many metronome numbers like these, if taken literally, as is common practice today, this etude is rarely if ever heard in the tempo of 4th = 160. So, could it be possible that my tempo is “correct” and current “mainstream” performances too slow according to what generally is considered to be Chopin’s wish? Let’s compare my version with two brilliant “mainstream” performances, one by Valentina Lisitsa and another by Maurizio Pollini and see what we can learn.

Wouldn’t we all love to hear Chopin play his own works…

For sure, if Chopin would return only for one hour to play his famous Revolutionary etude in C Minor, the least you could say is that we all would be inspired by what we heard. Indeed, a performance tells more than a score and certainly inmetronome art nouveau the case of music written by the greatest musicians, a lot of detailed information on the true meaning of their music would be revealed if brought to life under their own fingers.

Unfortunately, there are no recordings made from Chopin’s playing. The way he played the piano will remain for always reduced to the descriptions of contemporaries. Often references are made to the early 20th century recordings by pianists who could be considered to be second generation students of Chopin to hear at least echos of Chopin’s own playing. But as we’ve often pointed out, those recordings reflect a performance practice of the late 19th century, not  that of Chopin’s time.  Certainly on the field of tempo, it is very well documented that performance speeds increased from around 1840 onward, where, even for those 19th century musicians who still were aware of a certain tradition, it was not even an option to keep those old habits alive over that what was considered to be new, better even and a result of an ever ongoing “progress”.

We do have Chopin’s preference of tempo…

But in the light of the unrealizable dream or wish we all share to hear Chopin play with our own ears, it is remarkable that the most valuable information on his performances is often rejected completely. Thanks to the invention of the metronome in 1815, it became possible for composers to accurately note the exact speeds in which they themselves performed their music. Of course, a metronome marking does not give us information on the touch, on the delicacy for which Chopin was unmatched. But the speed, the tempo of a performance does tell us a lot on the basis of his way of playing. Since changing a tempo, changes all other layers of that performance: character of the piece, articulation, phrasing, timing, touch and so on.

The ‘proof’ of Metronome Marks only goes in one direction today

There is a weird approach to metronome numbers today. At one hand those original Metronome Markings are taken as to “proof” a performance like the one I made is too slow. But the same numbers will never be taken as a “proof” to the other side, to show that, according at least to Chopin, performances like the ones of Lisitsa and Pollini are too slow. Think about this. And also about the fact that in the way I see this problem solved, I’m able to perform a 100% of ALL metronome numbers. How solid is that as an argument?

When pointing to that discrepancy, the discussion changes to a common “believe” that metronome numbers were certainly not meant to be reached, or even to be taken seriously. After all, what would good musicians like Beethoven of Chopin care about the metronome?

Hmm. One would wonder of course why so many composers took the effort of giving metronome indications for so many works? They could have saved lots of hours by just asking the player to play as fast as possible, the more since so many of their speed indications are- again read literally- no less than warp speed. Just spent 10 minutes on google book search and you quickly learn how serious composers were in exactly indicating their pieces with the utmost precise tempi they considered to be ideal. Also Chopin.

All those metronome marks were meant to be played, they were accurate, precise tempo indications

But even if he wasn’t, it is a too far stretched argument that those extremely fast tempi never were meant to be played. Firstly, you will not find one single source in the complete 19th century to back you up for that. And secondly, it is an argument that simply is absurd if only taken into account the tens of thousands of metronome numbers we have, only from the first half of the 19th century.

Not to criticize… by all means not

So let’s have a look at two performances given by extremely talented players. For the record: I am not criticizing their performances in any way. Both Valentina Lisitsa and Maurizio Pollini are brilliant performers that do not need any comment nor advice from me. Their performances are given here only as a kind of reference of what positively could be called “mainstream” performances of this piece.

So if we start from the speed indication Chopin gave : quarter note  = 160, we can safely state that my performance does perfectly match the ticks of the metronome. It is shown to you at the beginning of my video, click here to listen.

Let me now give you a short excerpt from both Lisitsa and Pollini.

Now, certainly after listening to my performance, the technical impressions you get from both performances is rather impressive.

Still too slow? 

Both performances share similar tempi, as most performances of this piece do today. Yet, the tempi they take, are far below what Chopin prescribes to be the basis or the basic tempo for this etude. Both players fly around a speed of quarter note = 120 to 126. That’s about 20 to 25% below Chopin’s indication. And 25% above the tempo I’ve taken. So historically speaking, we are here in no man’s land…

60-63 is not an allegro!

Regardless of Chopin’s own number, and regardless of the discussion on single or double beat,  4th = 120 or half note = 60 is almost by definition too slow for an allegro piece. If you would compare dozens of allegro’s from Beethoven to Chopin, in similar notations as this etude, you will see that an allegro always will be around half  = 80, and that half  = 60 is preserved for more moderate tempi.

Furthermore, Chopin gives a normal allegro speed for what –obviously- is an allegro movement. But even this “simple” allegro seems to be far out of reach for two virtuoso players with a perfectly accomplished technique!  Only this aspect must make us rethink the original tempi Chopin had in mind. The burden of “proof” therefore is on the shoulders of the “single beat” defenders, and not of ours.

Accentuation by Chopin: important or not?

Diving more into detail in the score, we see also tiny little problems, that at first escape our attention, but point to important deviations of Chopin’s own indications.

For instance, Chopin wants to have clear accents on each quarter note, certainly in the runs of the first two lines. Let me again give you my performance here:

In the two other performances, there is still a kind of accent at the opening runs, more in Pollini’s version than in Lisitsa’s, but where the two hands go together, all accents disappear, click here to listen

Confusing rhythm 

Leaving out these accents result in a rather confusing rhythmical situation, a problem that all performances share, where the first low C is felt as being out of time. Let’s listen again.

That first C, so important to reinforce the feel of the tempo and the bar structure, comes in both performances mathematically on time, but according to our rhythmical feeling the C comes one 8th note too early. Reason is the accent on every first note after each jump, but seen this tempo –remember : still too slow according to Chopin!- there is no time for a counter accent on the structural notes of the bar, shifting the bar structure to one 8th later, falling back – shockingly- on the first beat of bar 7. It is remarkable that so many even legendary recordings share the same issue, since it is in fact a basic mistake.

Another problem according to the score is the use of the pedal. Chopin was known for his use of pedal and he was on the edge of paranoia to his editors for exactly copying his pedal markings. If we look at the beginning, those runs are difficult to give a deep, accentuated sound, even in double beat, the runs need to be played with full sound, but this aspect here is more difficult than for instance in his etude in C sharp minor where the fingers of the hand remain closer to each other. In a much higher tempo than Chopin envisioned, giving each 16th note its own weight and time to sound, this becomes impossible, what is proven in both performances: both players use the pedal almost constantly and need to use it during the complete runs, to help build the sound. The fingers alone have not enough time to stay long enough on the keys to create this on their own.

We can touch upon several other aspects, but let’s finish by the way tempo is threatened in both performances. In order to make technically possible what is happening in the left hand and still give a little bit of room in the right hand, both performances have in fact a lot of sudden tempo shifts. More than one perhaps would think. The left hand in both cases is often paused at the very last note to give time to the right hand to try to sing, but see how strange this is ones you know it, for instance here in bar 61 and 64

Rubato a solution when it’s going too fast?

If rubato in Chopin’s work in general might be up for some more detailed discussion, in this, strong rhythmical etude, there is in fact no doubt that it was supposed to be played strictly in time. And by the way: just holding notes randomly for sake of creating time in the other hand is by definition confusing to the listener and to avoid at all costs. We’re just got used to it so much in the case of this etude that we don’t feel the disturbances of it any more.

This kind of rubato is for Chopin stylistically undocumented. Listen to Carl Mikuli, one of his most known students and I quote:

In keeping time Chopin was inflexible, and many will be surprised to learn that the metronome never left his piano. Even in his oft-decried Tempo Rubato one hand – that having the accompaniment- always played on in strict time.”

So again, both Valentina Lisitsa and Maurizio Pollini are truly great pianists and musicians. There is not a single word here meant to be taken against their performances. But, I believe truly that when Chopin would return for a moment, we would be inspired but perhaps even in a shock. Since one can have a debate on the reading of metronome numbers –that is not too difficult to have- but looking to “mainstream” performances often showcase problems that might form stronger cases for the other “truth” than one at first would think.

More info? Start with this video.