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Don't Fix It

How adagio is too adagio?

Those of you who follow my Twitter (that’s all of you, yes? I thought so!) and were on last night may have been privy to a brief glimpse of my current musical struggle. I am on a mission: to find a recording of the second movement of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” piano sonata, marked adagio cantabile, that is both adagio and cantabile.

What I like about Beethoven is his transparency of emotion (at least for me – your mileage may vary, but they don’t call him a bridge to the Romantic era for nothin’). The “Pastoral” is stormy anger, the “Chorale” is sheer joy, and he was even kind enough to label these for us.

The second movement of the “Pathetique” is not so straightforward, but for me it is one of the most poignant pieces the piano has ever known. A “pathetique” is meant to describe passionate sorrow, but Beethoven dabbles in subtlety. His sorrow is pensive, introverted. Rather than railing against misfortune or succumbing to shocked depression, it is a piece that has accepted the inevitability of its defeat. Even that slightly faster, more upbeat modulation is a timid little rally, and is scarcely around for more than a few measures before the return of the main theme.

In short: it’s sad and I love it. Yet I find so many artists take it so fast and so… I don’t know… etude-y. People, this is not an exercise! This is a lingering longing, and should be treated as such. And that’s why I’m having such trouble finding a suitable track.

When I was looking at clips on iTunes, I saw three different versions by Ashkenazi, with lengths of 4:59, 5:00, and 5:02. Does not suggest much variation of feeling to me, and I don’t feel bad saying this because Mr. Ashkenazi is dead and probably does not care what I think (apparently he’s alive in Australia. But probably still does not care what I think). Whoever tuned Artur Schnabel’s piano before he recorded… well, I hope he was fired afterward. Joshua Leeds educated me: I thought it couldn’t go too slow, but I discovered how wrong I was when listening to the clip of his 7:50 performance, with ages between chords. And anyone who is finishing this piece in less than 4:45 – who do you think you are, Secretariat?

I finally thought I’d hit something when listening to a recording by Radu Lupu, but it turns out you have to buy the whole bloody album for it and I’m not prepared for that just yet. And so I ask you, dear reading audience: can you direct me to a slow, sweet second movement of Beethoven’s “Pathetique”?

About Jenn

Despite being the former digital marketing intern at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Jenn German does not like Mozart. Beethoven could've totally beaten him up. Also she has an arts management graduate degree from American University, but this changes nothing.


8 thoughts on “How adagio is too adagio?

  1. I like the Rubenstein; it is adagio and cantabile. Adagio is not just a tempo; it is a style.

    Posted by David T | February 25, 2010, 1:04 am
  2. I feel your pain, Jenn. Playing gratuitously fast is one of my biggest peeves. The old wheeze about “why does she play so fast?” = “because she can” really isn’t funny anymore, because so many do it. Musichas to breathe.

    It’s true that playing, say, Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso at largo tempo won’t work. But it’s no worse than playing it so fast that youy’d swear…the piano is an expensive piece of Nautilus gym equipment.

    The list is endless, alas. Take the Bach Bb prelude from WTCI. I’ve never heard it breathe. Yes, I can play it at 70. But I choose to play it in the mid-50s.

    So, motivated by your post, I did a read of the 2nd movement of Pathetique. Didn’t look at the watch, just let it breathe and linger. Came in at about 10 minutes.

    I won’t beflippant and say “hire me to play it” . But it’s one good reason why I choose to roll my own, as it were. Too often I’m disappointed by tempo extremes. That doesn’t mean I don’t listen a lot, and it doesn’t mean I’d claim to put Pollini out of business, of course.

    %%robert (your new Twitter acquaintance)

    Posted by chopinslut | February 25, 2010, 9:14 pm
    • I don’t know if you have any easy means of recording, but if you’ve the time and means I’d be curious to hear your version. The 7:50 didn’t float my boat, but that was because it felt like a year between each chord. I can imagine how you could sustain and stretch into something quite lovely.

      I’m not a pianist, but my mother is, and by osmosis I have absorbed the idea that the piano is not an easy instrument to make lyrical and feeling due to its percussive nature. I don’t know if you would agree with this statement, but I think it takes an extra bit of… oh, I don’t know, soul? Or something. Something extra in the pianist and their approach to make a piano piece emotional, and that’s why when it works it can be that much more powerful for its dichotomy. And maybe why when the pianist lacks that soul he tries to make up for it with acrobatics. Just ideas.

      Posted by Jenn | February 26, 2010, 1:02 am
  3. Hysteron/proteron, as the ancient Greek rhetoricians would say, Jenn.

    Absolutely on percussive piano. One of my online friends, a wickedly good mezzo, said she’s always telling her students “the voice is not a percussion instrument.” The combination of percussion and decaying sound is what makes it so hard to play…and why Chopin, quirky genius that he was, succeeded so well by writing exactly to those weaknesses. In fact, during his long quasi-retirement, Horowitz said he stayed up late every nite listening to bel canto. I’ve done the same and in makes a difference. Didn’t do Horowitz much good, but that’s another matter .

    Of course. When someone has no soul, go for the cheap testosterone — Tome Cruise, “I feel the need, the need for speed.” Fine for an F-15, not so fine for a grand piano.

    My feeling about speed is that if you’ve got some soul and sensibility, you know when the tempo is right. With the possible exception of Brahms. In the Paganini Variations (one of my current learnings), you know you’ve got the right tempo when it just starts to “whir.” Not too much whir. But right at the point where the w-word begins.

    Although I’ve got the means (not used for awhile) to record, I’m not sure how well it would come across at the quasi-glacial speed I tried. Because when you’re sitting right on top of the piano (so to speak), your hear the sounds and overtones a lot longer, or your mind thinks it is . Kind of like the wide varieties of tempos which WTC will sustain — it wasn’t meant for public performance. I’m not saying “not” — but it’s something I’ll have to check out some more. Btw, fwiw, when I finished that movement, I just tore into the 3rd movement way faster than any sane person should…took me about half a page to realize I was really destroying the sound.

    Don’t get me wrong. I don’t do this for a living (as you probably guessed from my Twitter line). I do it because I love it. I may switch to it fulltime after I’m a *completely* recovered academic.


    Posted by chopinslut | February 26, 2010, 12:28 pm
  4. A modest post scriptum….

    A link on tempo, var. composer’s metronome markings:


    Posted by chopinslut | February 26, 2010, 5:39 pm
  5. I met Ashkenazy backstage at the Kennedy Center in the early 1980s. He was very, very short and very, very nice. He demonstrated a bit of a Rachmaninoff Prelude on the piano in the Green Room for another graduate student and me. He told us that it was about the wolf chasing Little Red Riding Hood. I had never thought of it that way, but it fit!

    At the time I would guess he was in his early 40s, and yes, he is still very much alive.

    Posted by Sheri | February 28, 2010, 4:07 pm


  1. Pingback: It’s slow, it’s sweet, it’s got its own light show « If it ain't Baroque… - July 11, 2011

  2. Pingback: Tchaikovsky, the third grade, and me « If it ain't Baroque… - October 11, 2011

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