Post by Mike Scott Rohan Post by C.Z.
A question for Mike. I dislike the fast tempos in 18th C. music which are de rigueur today. The pendulum is almost vertical. It seems to be a race among conductors to see who can play it the fastest without killing the oboist, as they get faster all the time. The other night I was listening to a recording of the B Minor Mass hy Gardner where the fast movements were technically disjointed. The varied contrapuntal sections of the choir and orchestra were regularly out of step with each other because he could not keep them together at those tempos.
Does this obtain in 18th C. opera also? I don't seem to have heard it there, though admittedly I don't listen to much opera of earlier than the 19th C.
I'll happily give my two cents worth, especially as it also often applies to Wagner, but why me especially? Very flattering, but really it's a matter of opinion and judgement. There's no doubt that the period-instrument movement was right to wind up the tempi of 18th-century music generally; scholarship does justify it, for reasons I've no intention of going into here (it would take hours and I'm not that sound on them anyway...) But how much faster, is the question? It can be revelatory, but it can also be self-defeating, as you say, by making life too hard for the players and voices. Among the leading early lights of the period movement, Roger Norrington tended to whip things up like mad throughout, while Christopher Hogwood was usually more flexible, although his Beethoven caught the bug. But Gardiner has always been famously fast in almost anything. Sometimes, as in his film of Cosi fan Tutte, it's sparkling; but his Magic Flute, for me as for many, is a hard-driven disaster, and he's not much better in Don Giovanni. So yes, it does infect 18th century opera, but many conductors manage to find a better balance. Nevertheless there's a school that seems to relish taking the swirling statue themes in Don G as rapidly as possible, stripping them of atmosphere and mystery -- the same sort of people who think comedy is more intellectual if it isn't actually funny. I feel that when tempi get that extreme, when there is some concrete reason the music no longer works so well at that speed, then we can actually say that it's wrong. But up to that it's a matter of preference. Some of the old Bach mass recordings seem pretty lumpen to me -- and KLemperer's Mozart, for all its power.
When the revisionists get into romantic music the results are equally mixed. It was undoubtedly faster then the 1930s norm, but again we can't say for sure how much so -- metronome markings were often inserted by the publisher, not the composer, and are unreliable. Norrington's Flying Dutchman and Mastersingers overtures are so fast that music meant to be sung or marched to onstage couldn't possibly be -- so the likelihood is that they're wrong. But on the other hand Gardner's Berlioz and choral Schumann are absolutely wonderful.
Anyhow, that's my feeling as far as I can sum it up right now-- must go in to dinner or my wife will kill me!
Dunno if anyone will pick this up, but here goes...My understanding is that speeds since Wagner have slowed down. An article in the Cambridge Opera Journal Vol.20(2), July 2008, compares Dannreuther's metronome markings which he recorded at the dress rehearsals for the first Bayreuth Rheingold in 1876 with those of six later conductors. If memory serves me correctly (I can't access the article any more, only the abstract), these show a general slowing of tempi over the decades.
The title of your post is ironic, in view of Wagner's own comment at the rehearsals for Parsifal, in which he frequently called out from the stalls, "Schneller, schneller, die Leute werden sich langweilen!" (Faster, faster, the people will get bored!).
Personally, I like my tempi fast while keeping on the right side of coherence. Recently I had occasion to listen to several old recordings of the overture to Handel's Messiah, and hearing Sargent and his ilk drag out every microsecond for all it was worth gave me a bit of a laugh. I'm afraid I'm all for modern period instrument performances actually making sense, rather than soup, out of it. The reason for this preference for faster tempi is simply that the faster you go, the more you remember in one go. I find that melodic, rhythmic and harmonic shapes reveal themselves that way, which to me makes the music make sense. I'm due to conduct Messiah at the end of this year, and I'll definitely be driving the opening forward for that reason. The first entity, to me, is the melody up till the first note in the fourth bar, climaxing on the first note of the third, then phrasing away. It's that kind of sensibility that gets drowned in slow performances.
I've gotten used to Goebel's frenetic Brandenburgs (so fast that he also manages to fit Bach's A minor concerto for violin, flute and harpsichord onto the two CDs), and my favourite Four Seasons is the super-fast one by an Italian period instrument group whose name escapes me at the moment. They're exciting fast, not incoherent fast.