Patterico's Pontifications

12/22/2013

Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein Perform the First Brahms Piano Concerto

Filed under: General — Patterico @ 1:32 pm

Browsing through the Web, I found this interesting recording — interesting not just for the remarkably slow tempo of the performance, but also for the startling and amusing disclaimer Bernstein presents at the beginning of the recording. Essentially, he gives a speech saying: “this wasn’t my idea.”

My view is that music should generally be played at the tempo that the composer indicated (not, as here, at half that tempo). Conductors are notorious for ignoring such directions, though. Almost nobody plays the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony at the relatively breakneck pace indicated, Bernstein included. (They also throw in the occasional unindicated rallentando, start a crescendo in the wrong place, and so forth.) I once almost wrote Leonard Bernstein, in fact, over the absurd way that he raced into the next movement of a symphony (I can’t remember which one off the top of my head) ignoring a rest with a fermata (meaning the rest should be extra long). Instead of an extra long rest, he had no rest at all. I wanted to ask him if he understood what a fermata is intended to indicate.

So it’s not like Bernstein wasn’t given to his own, er interpretations. Still, this speech is remarkable — as is the performance . . . at least, what you can hear of it over the incessant coughing.

26 Comments

  1. Do you also dislike covers of rock songs?

    Comment by Snip (031824) — 12/22/2013 @ 2:08 pm

  2. Thank you for this wonderful post, Patterico. Yes, on one level the piece is almost unrecognizable, but still quite enjoyable –especially if one does not get too hung up on “semantics”. At this tempo at several points there’s a Chopin-ish quality to it, at least to my ears.

    But the larger point that it never hurts for us to be open to looking at old things in new ways, (not just music) is universal.

    Comment by elissa (a65140) — 12/22/2013 @ 2:34 pm

  3. Here’s another example in the arts of approaching old things in new ways. Behold the beautiful and absolutely graceful nine- month’s- pregnant ballerina.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/20/pregnant-ballerina-mary-helen-bowers_n_4480459.html?utm_hp_ref=mostpopular

    Comment by elissa (a65140) — 12/22/2013 @ 2:45 pm

  4. it reminds one somewhat of kadamervsky’s dance of the sugar plum anus in four movements, especially if one has gotten oneself so far into a bottle of ghastly hungarian plum brandy that it’s threatening to become palatable

    Comment by happyfeet (8ce051) — 12/22/2013 @ 3:02 pm

  5. I usually one have one of those kinds of movements a day. If you are having four, you might want to see a doctor.

    Comment by daleyrocks (bf33e9) — 12/22/2013 @ 3:04 pm

  6. The piano parts sound great at this tempo but the orchestra lumbers.

    Comment by AZ Bob (ade845) — 12/22/2013 @ 3:25 pm

  7. Ooh, he said “pianist”. You missed that, happyfeet.

    I just got back from a piano recital by my daughter and other students of that teacher. Some bassoon, too. I am classicaled out.

    Comment by nk (dbc370) — 12/22/2013 @ 3:45 pm

  8. Comment by daleyrocks (bf33e9) — 12/22/2013 @ 3:04 pm
    I succeeded in not spewing a mouthful of tea on my computer reading that…just barely though.

    what a fermata is
    I thought it was a measure of atomic energy, named after Enrico Fermi.
    Or a measure of bubbles in beer during the fermentation process.

    I’m thinking that P decided that after the Robertsons and rural Louisiana culture taking up so much space, Mr. Drysdale had to reassert his presence along with the Clampetts.
    ;-)

    Comment by MD in Philly (f9371b) — 12/22/2013 @ 4:18 pm

  9. Interesting topic, Patterico. Thanks for the break from politics. And it doesn’t surprise me that LB would change things on a whim when he conducted. It’s well known that Bernstein was pretty much an out-and-out narcissist by the end of his career.

    BTW, changes in tempo can have a huge affect on the piece played, even well outside of the classical realm. Has anyone here ever heard the Beach Boys song that finishes their classic album Pet Sounds, “Caroline No”? As slow as it is… Brian Wilson recorded it at an even slower pace, and listening to the recording at the actual/original speed and then the speed it was mastered for on the album is… dramatic, to say the least.

    Comment by qdpsteve (7ed3c4) — 12/22/2013 @ 4:49 pm

  10. Glen Gould’s performances are always interesting. Challenging. Fascinating. Eventually, almost addicting. I always wanted to ask him if his tempo changes were discovered in reading the score, or in playing the keyboard, or …. Never got the chance.

    Comment by htom (412a17) — 12/22/2013 @ 5:58 pm

  11. Tempo isn’t as easy as some would think. In his day, Beethoven’s music was played much faster than we are used to hearing it.

    Also, I found that the quicker tempo’s of the late 70′s Power Pop actually made the music lifeless.

    Comment by AZ Bob (ade845) — 12/22/2013 @ 5:59 pm

  12. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4gXdWELSgEQ

    The 5th at the mentioned tempo, just in case you were curious.

    Comment by JWB (4980ac) — 12/22/2013 @ 7:17 pm

  13. Glen Gould is most famous for his interpretation of Bach’s keyboard music. His version of Bach’s Goldberg Variations is regarded as the most definitive. In fact, a recording of his was incorporated into a disk that was sent to outer space on the Voyager back in the 1970′s. I once heard snippets of Gould playing Chopin and I did not care for it at all, so I am not surprised about Bernstein’s reluctance on his interpretation of Brahms. I don’t think he was very good with Romantic composers.

    Comment by Tony (2a43e2) — 12/22/2013 @ 7:18 pm

  14. There’s controlled breakneck speed (good) and then there’s manic. Zander’s Beethoven felt manic to me. The orchestra sounded like a runaway train at times.

    Comment by elissa (a65140) — 12/22/2013 @ 7:35 pm

  15. JWB,

    Thanks very much for that video. I never saw it before but am listening now.

    Yup, that’s the tempo Beethoven wrote.

    It sounds breakneck to us, I think, because I think we’re used to slower, modern performances.

    Today’s orchestras are also far larger, and today’s concert halls have better acoustics, than in Beethoven’s time. That could make the usual changes at least arguably defensible.

    I see this guy also doesn’t do the mandatory unscripted rallentandos that are part of today’s cliched performance. He has clearly studied the score and is a sort of “textualist” in his interpretation.

    I think that, whatever you think of such performances, it’s good to recognize, and occasionally attempt to realize, what Beethoven actually wrote. You know?

    Comment by Patterico (6e3a43) — 12/22/2013 @ 10:31 pm

  16. Glen Gould is most famous for his interpretation of Bach’s keyboard music. His version of Bach’s Goldberg Variations is regarded as the most definitive. In fact, a recording of his was incorporated into a disk that was sent to outer space on the Voyager back in the 1970′s. I once heard snippets of Gould playing Chopin and I did not care for it at all, so I am not surprised about Bernstein’s reluctance on his interpretation of Brahms. I don’t think he was very good with Romantic composers.

    To me, Artur Rubinstein is the man when it comes to Chopin.

    And he certainly performed with rubato and plenty of interpretation. Goes to show you that I am not a fan of robotic performances.

    And, Snip? I love covers of rock songs.

    Comment by Patterico (6e3a43) — 12/22/2013 @ 10:33 pm

  17. And I didn’t say I didn’t like the performance featured in the post, either.

    Comment by Patterico (6e3a43) — 12/22/2013 @ 10:34 pm

  18. I always learn something on this site, and I especially appreciate daley’s concern over the number of daley movements induced by this high tempo rendition. Knowing nothing about music, I am inclined to think that this would be an excellent source for scores of Alfred Hitchcock thrillers. Alternatively, Gould could have peeked into the future and the whole thing was a methaphor for Hth Won’s term of office … the sooner we get past this, the better. Elissa is also on target with her Chopin-ish review.

    Comment by bobathome (c0c2b5) — 12/22/2013 @ 10:45 pm

  19. Comment by AZ Bob (ade845) — 12/22/2013 @ 5:59 pm

    In his day, Beethoven’s music was played much faster than we are used to hearing it.

    I think there’s also been some inflation in musical pitch since his time.

    Comment by Sammy Finkelman (dbe090) — 12/22/2013 @ 11:41 pm

  20. Another example of wildly different tempi between the sheet music and the performance is in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. My sheet music is hard to get at right now, but as I recall “Bydlo” is written at a tempo of 80. Performances seem to be at 40 to 50. This is true for both the piano version and the Ravel orchestration.

    OTOH, it’s supposed to be about an ox and cart. Why would/should it go so fast? [grin]

    Comment by Red County Pete (6628c1) — 12/23/2013 @ 8:36 am

  21. From The First Four Notes … Jean-Francois Le Sueur, nearing seventy, was too refined to fulminate, but he kept a respectful distance from the novelties — that is, until one of his students, an up-and-coming enfant terrible named Hector Berlioz, dragged his teacher to a performance of the Fifth. Berlioz later recalled Le Sueur’s postconcert reaction: “Ouf! I’m going outside, I need some air. It’s unbelievable, wonderful! It so moved and disturbed me and turned me upside down that when I came out of my box and went to put on my hat, for a moment I didn’t know where my head was.”

    I’ve seen that quote (unattributed) in other places about the Fifth. This is a tempo that makes you lose your head. Your mind can’t keep up. It overwhelms your musical thinking, that power is stripped away and you have no choice but to feel. Intellectualization and rationalization fall before the fury of Romance.

    Thanks for the link, JWB.

    Comment by htom (412a17) — 12/23/2013 @ 1:27 pm

  22. He liked to vocalize as he performed. Have one or two or his Bach recordings & it is quite loud. I had to get used to hearing that in the background. Forgotten his eccentries – used to soak his hands in spring water, I believe. I attened USC School of Music same time as Michael Tilson Thomas who was in one of my baroque performance classes but was rarely there, already too busy, a real whiz kid, and went on to become a Bernstein protege. Was lucky to be there at same time of Heifetz, Piatigorsky, Primrose, so many talents, some of whom have sadly passed away. Heifetz’ studio, Lloyd Wright design, was moved brick by brick to the Colburn Institute and it is open to the public. To me, it seemed out of character being away from his home but am so glad they preserved it. Many fond memories of our classes as well as less serious times at Mr. Heifetz’s beach house in the Colony.

    Comment by Judy Eaton (aee826) — 12/23/2013 @ 2:29 pm

  23. Beethoven was a German. So the word for the day is Hauptzeitmass.

    Hauptzeitmass indicates a return to the original tempo after a rhythm change.

    Comment by papertiger (c2d6da) — 12/23/2013 @ 3:46 pm

  24. Patterico,

    If you like classical music, I imagine you are familiar with the great Jim Svejda, whose “Evening Program” runs from 7pm until midnite (PST) weeknights on KUSC 91.5.
    He’s openly a political conservative.
    When the station does their periodic fundraising drives, he’ll talk about a particular membership level which breaks down to about 50 cents a day, “…which is about the price of the daily Los Angeles Times. Only if you give us that money, we won’t in turn give you silly political editorials that end up lining your bird’s cage.”

    He’s one of LA’s great treasures.

    http://www.kusc.org

    Comment by Elephant Stone (6a6f37) — 12/23/2013 @ 5:33 pm

  25. 18. Wow, evidently my presumption that I was acquainted with music was total fantasy. You people amaze.

    Comment by gary gulrud (e2cef3) — 12/24/2013 @ 8:35 pm

  26. not to be too too contrary, but….First– It’s often a good idea to not accept composer’s tempo markings literally, but to treat them as expressive markings. There are two main reasons for this. Composers are not always good judges of tempos because for some composing involves a kind of compression of time perception where they see or hear or sense a whole section of music at once. Additionally, tempos simply have to change in different acoustic spaces. With significant natural reverb of a relatively boomy space, if you don’t slow down a bit the music sounds mushy.

    Second, while I do think Beethoven is often played too slowly, his tempo markings were years after many of the pieces were written. What if he changed his mind? after 1811 or so regarding the pieces he had written earlier? Which would be more authentic? Composers change their minds about their own music all the time. Furthermore, they are idealists and not always practical. They can also be very quixotic judges of other peoples’ performances of their music (See Stravinsky’s article about performances of his Rite. It’s weird.

    And as for the unwritten ‘Rallentando”s you mention, it reminds me of a quote attributed to Faure–when asked why he wrote fewer and fewer markings in his music he said “The good singers don’t need them, and for the bad singers it makes no difference.” Pace Toscaninni who never saw a tempo modification he liked, there have been letters found since then from Beethoven talking about tempo modifications in his music that are not indicated in the score. And there are almost no tempo modifications indicated in Chopin but if you don’t play a berjillion of them you are not playing it the way Chopin probably would have.
    [Though if you put them in Bach . . . eek!]

    Finally, though, the issue of ‘authenticity’ is a trap, a dead-end in performing music. Do you want a historical performance of Beethoven’s Violin concerto? Find someone who has never played it before, give them a couple of weeks and an OK if enthusiastic orchestra, and voilà. Do you want what you think Beethoven would think would be his ideal version of the same piece? Good luck. You can approach it, and it might be worth talking about, but ultimately, music takes place in the imperfect, emotional real world with real people and instruments.

    On one side of the analytical spectrum, some interpretations seem to be inarguably wrong and inauthentic, but even those can sometimes be incredibly interesting. (thus Bernstein and Gould.) On the other spectrum, though, there is almost never only one way to play a piece ‘authentically.’ There simply can’t be. It’s like saying there is only one way to love.

    Comment by marc (4a86fa) — 12/25/2013 @ 11:23 pm

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