‘First clarinet – you hurry!’
So said the imploring but kindly Sir Colin Davis, in a rehearsal moment captured as part of a radio feature before a performance by the National Youth Orchestra, some years ago. Most people – even non-musicians – understand that one of the fundamental jobs of a conductor is to set the tempo of the music. The word ‘tempo’ itself is widely understood to relate to speed, and this post is possibly more specifically about ‘speed’ than ‘tempo’. The latter, to my mind, has a slightly wider meaning connected with how fast the music sounds, rather than just how many beats per minute it’s ticking along at.
At the conclusion of a terrific recital yesterday afternoon by violinist Elizaveta Tyun (who’ll be playing the Brahms Violin Concerto with APO in May), her recital partner Amiran Zenaishvili answered a question from the audience about how they determined the tempi for the Elgar Violin Sonata. The premise of the question was that Elgar’s recordings seem to be faster than contemporary interpretations. In an elegantly-argued reply, he pointed out that technical deficiencies in the recordings of that era may contribute to this impression, but that also in his experience the metronome marks that some composers specify don’t always make a lot of sense when it comes to realising an interpretation. He suggested that they get so used to hearing the music in a working sense, that their ability to define a metronome marking is compromised or detached from a performer’s interpretation.
Amiran cited Shostakovich as an example – something conductors can relate to in terms of the ending of the Fifth Symphony. The metronome marking of crotchet=188 seems implausibly fast and strangely marked. It’s virtually impossible to intelligibly beat crochets that fast, so the conductor would have to conduct in 2 anyway – in which case a marking of minim=94 would seem far more sensible. Many conductors feel that it seems too ‘joyful’ at this tempo, when Shostakovich is quoted as suggesting that ‘the rejoicing is forced’. Maybe it’s a typo and he meant quaver=188 – in other words half the speed. If you listen to Bernstein, he takes the marking of crotchet=188 literally, whereas Rostropovich (a friend of the composer), takes the same ending at crotchet=94 – half the speed. The effect on the interpretation is substantial.
The whole discussion above can be put down to that word – interpretation. Of course different artists will have different interpretations and different justifications for it. Think of the Bach of Glenn Gould versus a historically-informed performance. But the title of this post isn’t ‘a matter of taste’. I’m interested in the phenomenon of when, how and why musicians go or get faster than the interpretation they intended – why they hurry.
When APO performed Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony in January 2005, it was a great success (in the end – after some stress and artistic tantrums from the conductor in and after the general rehearsal!). Two observations were made by players: ‘Bloody hell – Andrew went way faster at the opening of the finale than in rehearsal!’ and, ‘Bloody hell – he took the ending a lot slower than in rehearsal’. The latter was a deliberate, calculated gamble: I wanted to really bring home the Rostropovich-style ‘forced rejoicing’ and going slower made the players work that bit harder, but the former was definitely not. Furthermore, I have no memory of going faster on the night than in the rehearsals. Yet almost everyone said I did.
Adrenaline? Quite probably. The exhilaration of live performance and all that. But also, inexperience. It was APO’s 8th concert, taking my personal tally as a conductor to about 11, if you count various conducting experiences at university. Also, youth (more on that below). Also, players. Yes, players. It takes two to tango, and an ensemble has to be willing and able to accept a tempo. And players, too, have a tendency to hurry, especially when the notes are hard. Again, more on that below.
I remember reading, a long time ago, about a young conductor who was standing up in front of a professional orchestra for the first time, in a conducting competition. He had chosen the overture to Glinka’s opera ‘Ruslan and Ludmilla’ – a five-minute feast of furious semiquavers and a race to the finish line at the best of times. He set off at breakneck speed and…the orchestra played it perfectly. Accustomed to non-professional players not being able to cope with such technical demands of speed, the young conductor had nothing left to rehearse in his 15-minute slot – no interpretation or anything. I’ve never conducted a professional orchestra and this story haunts me, along with other horror stories about inexperienced conductors standing up in front of pros with vast experience.
Anyway, my point is about youth, as promised. I have two theories about younger conductors, both based on the shaky evidence-base of casual observation of many conductors and detailed analysis of one in particular. Firstly, that they tend to adopt faster interpretations in the hope of sounding edgy and exciting, like the example above. Secondly, they tend to lack the experience or capability not to hurry. There are exceptions that prove the rule. Andris Nelsons (no longer that young as he’s just turned 40, meaning I stop being young in April…) has generally impressed me by adopting steady tempi. I remember hearing his overture to Ruslan and thinking, ‘Wow! I can actually hear the notes, it doesn’t sound like a scrappy race and it’s actually more exciting like this.’ Similarly, if you have a chance to listen to his interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, it is much slower than, say, Valery Gergiev’s – but just as, if not more exciting.
You’ve probably guessed that the ‘detailed analysis of one conductor’ is…me. Whenever I listen to a recording of a performance I’ve conducted, I lament how much I hurry. It’s not all the time, but it’s definitely a thing. Not that I doubted all the players who’ve told me over the years, but there’s nothing like incontrovertible evidence to keep your feet on the ground. So, I’ve been working on it, really hard. Like everything in music, really listening is the first step, but I’ve found that’s not enough; I’ve found that being more aware of how it feels to physically conduct at certain speed has been very important in trying to reconcile the interpretation in my head (shaped by the orchestra’s response during rehearsals) with the physical manifestation of the beat through my arms and hands, leading to the end result.
Why are the two so different? The answer: stress. It’s perfectly natural – our heart beats faster thanks to adrenaline coursing through the veins, and our ability to devote sufficient mental capacity to monitoring desired versus actual tempo, translating it into appropriate gestures, is reduced by the sheer excitement of the moment and emerging threats to the success of the performance (the missed entry here, the imperfect balance there, etc.).
I am not being hard on myself. It affects players, too, and I think it’s reasonable to say it affects non-professional players more than experienced pros. This can be in terms of technique and musicianship, or a combination of both. The former will command more of your attention the less accomplished it is. In simple terms, if you can’t play the notes almost without thinking about them, your capacity to listen, watch and be generally aware is greatly diminished. It’s not just a question of panic, but that does play its part, too.
Even when the notes are relatively simple, players have the eyes and ears open, and their awareness radar fully on, the nature of some writing lends itself to hurrying. The examples of pizzicato for strings, dotted rhythms and rests will be familiar to orchestral players of any standard. All relate to the problem of wanting to ‘close the gap’ or ‘fill the silence’. For dotted rhythms, in particular, we often have to work on dotting them more than your brain tells you is necessary, to avoid a ‘tripletty’ rhythm (which can induce rushing).
This is another example of perception being different from reality, when it comes to speed. During rehearsals for Mahler 3, recently, I was challenged about my tempi by some players. Despite being a world-champion of taking criticism personally, I want all my players to feel like they can make suggestions to improve the performance, so I tried my best to empathise with the points being made. Interestingly, the complaint was that some tempi were too slow and would contribute to player fatigue in the longest piece we’ve ever attempted.
There were other factors against which I had to balance the criticism – ones that the players in question wouldn’t necessarily be aware of. The tempo at that stage of the rehearsals was slightly under where I intended it to be for the performance, whilst the band got used to the music and we established some key principles. One of these was to do with dotted rhythms – my strategy being that if we could learn not to ‘close the gaps’ at a slower tempo, where the gaps are by definition longer, it would make the final performance very crisp and disciplined. In terms of interpretation, I didn’t want the music to sound too skippy, especially during march-like sections. I had even gone to the lengths of trying out different marching speeds on the walk to work, to try to work out the optimum tempo. My greatest concern, however, was that it would encourage hurrying. I did not want the ensemble to sound scrappy and promote pushing ahead, versus the discipline that a march needs.
Part of what made the criticism difficult to accept was the fact that, as part of my score preparation, I listen to a great many recordings (thanks to streaming services) and try to settle on a reference recording that most closely matches my interpretation (for some symphonies, each movement might come from a different recording!). In preparation for the Mahler, I’d worked really hard with my reference recording on what I described above about feeling the physical sense of speed in my gestures. Whenever I’ve listened to a hurried recording of a performance I’ve conducted, I’ve always remembered that the beat felt too slow, which might explain why I’ve ended up going faster than intended. My reference recording for the Mahler was Bernard Haitink with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (there are a few Haitink recordings and his earlier ones, like the one with the Concertgebouw, are considerably faster!). Of course, players might have their own reference/favourite recordings and while the interpretations of the artists in those aren’t wrong, they will be imprinted on the brains of those players – perhaps giving the impression that my interpretation is unreasonably slow (or fast), and of course influencing their muscle memory as they practise individually according to their familiarity with a potentially very different tempo.
Being honest, it created a bit of tension between me and certain players. We worked through it, together. I think there was an acknowledgement that our perceptions might be affected both by what we were used to but also the way it feels when in the heat of the moment. I had to wrestle with the sense that what I regarded as a valid interpretation was not appreciated by them, or that possibly I was failing to execute that interpretation – going at a different speed to that which I intended. Adjustments were made, but I struggled to let go of the sense that I’d been unduly influenced by a few people in the orchestra. Were they right, or should I have stuck to my guns?
In the end, on the night, I felt just about comfortable with the tempo. I didn’t want to fight the band and spoil the flow of the music, nor did I want to just let it run away (which, with the faster tempo, it was occasionally in danger of doing). Listening back to the recording and comparing the metronome speed of the Haitink/BVSO and APO’s performance during the march music, ours is about 4bpm faster (which is about 14bpm slower than the Haitink Concertgebouw recording!). To me, it sounds pretty good – result!
Although my confidence in my interpretation and conducting was dented by the criticism, I hope that after the initial 8-man defensive wall had been dispersed, my reaction was such that it won’t dissuade players from coming forward with suggestions in future. I was able to take the points on board and work with the players to a resolution that didn’t compromise my vision for the piece and acknowledged the validity of their points.
My challenge to the band for the future is to really focus on the war against hurrying. I wonder if there’s a workshop we could do on perception of tempo versus realisation, that will help raise awareness and improve musicianship when it comes to rushing, using some of the ‘physical realisation’ techniques I’ve tried with my conducting. Maybe there’s already some expertise/materials out there that would help us do this. Surely there must be; I’m convinced that a thesis could be written on this subject! If anyone knows of anything, please post in the comments so we can investigate it. No rush…