Saturday, February 20, 2010

Slow, slow...

...and even slower. I have been going to the Mahler cycle in Manchester. Last Saturday was the massive Third Symphony, this Thursday it was the Fourth. Wonderful music and some excellent playing, but, especially on Thursday, the tempo was so slow. Long lingering performances are meant to wring every ounce of emotion and drama out of the music. For me, all they do is misrepresent it. The awkward and the lively becomes smooth and sonorous. It is as if the Alps are being depicted as the Pennines.

When I came home after the concert I searched YouTube and found a 1939 recording of a live performance given by the Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg. Mengelberg knew and worked with Mahler and heard Mahler himself conduct the symphony in 1904. The faster pace throughout is striking. And for those of you familiar with the Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony, a tender love song often rendered as tragic, most famously and ravishingly in Visconti's film of Death in Venice, should listen to this astonishing 1926 recording, again by Mengelberg.

It has been endemic in classical music although now the trend towards authentic performance is beginning to restore a faster tempo, but popular music has had the same treatment. Wailing and vocal pyrotechnics have displaced melody. The attempt to re-interpret standards simply by showing off is everywhere. It isn't always bad though, occasionally it can be stunning and compellingly dramatic, so sit back and enjoy this spectacular performance by the legendary Whitley Euston.


Will said...

"bingo starts in five minutes"

Wanted -- a stopwatch to time a whippet.

Overtired and emotional said...

Interesting point which is proven by comparing other pre war recordings against modern versions.

In particular, Mahler's 9th Symphony took Barbirolli in 1964 78 minutes, whilst Bruno Walter, another man who had worked under Mahler, took 70 minutes in 1939.

John said...

Whitley Euston. Wow, it's all in there, in her voice: animal passion, desperation, booze, hope, endurance, elegance, futility, beauty, defeat, resolution.

Charles Buchowski would have loved this song.

Roger McCarthy said...

There is a nice little essay on Mahler's adagietto at

This gives the following recording times:

Mengelberg (1926) - 7 mins

Mengelberg (1939) - 8' 20"
Walter (1938) - 8'
Walter (1947) - 7' 40"
Rattle (2002) - 9' 30"
Barbirolli (1969) - 9' 50"
Chailly (1997) - 10' 15"
Haitink (1970) - 10' 30"
Bernstein (1987) - 11'
Karajan (1973) - 11' 50"
Haitinck (1988 - 13' 55".

Or a 100% spread between shortest and longest.

FWIW my own preference is for Barbirolli's middle course - Mengelberg and Walter are just too fast and Karajan and Haitinck too slow.

And it's not just Mahler - the slowest recorded performance of Wagner's Ring cycle I've heard is a full three hours longer than the shortest (16 to 13 hours) - a difference long enough to fit in a whole additional opera by a Mozart or Puccini.

Beethoven and Bruckner also seem to have been getting slower and slower.

I suspect this comes firstly from the postwar superstar German conductors like Karajan, Boehm and Klemperer who loved to assert their ownership of a work by using extreme tempos (usually slow but occasionally fast) - and secondly to record companies love of overpriced double LP and CD box sets which encouraged conductors to spread a symphony over two discs and then add some filler tracks.

I also wonder if the fast tempos beloved of pre-war conductors have something to do with the limitations of the recording medium then - even early 12" LPs only had the capacity for 10 minutes music per side - so there was probably real pressure on conductors to avoid splitting a movement over multiple discs or sides if it could be avoided.

For example Mengelberg's first 1926 recording predated LPs so even his 7 minute adagietto would have been split over two sides of a 10" disc - but by 1939 he could be a bit more expansive and get a whole 8' 20" track on one side of a 12" LP.

Overtired and emotional said...

Also, pre war, the conductor and orchestra would get a move on to make sure they were in time for the last tram home.

Roger McCarthy said...

And of course during the war they had to contend with the likelihood of an air raid interrupting them.

The film Taking Sides begins very impressively with Furtwangler's Berlin Philharmonic being interrupted in mid-movement by allied bombs and the Nazi audience having to bolt for the shelters.

Personally I think it was advances in the mode of production that drove performance styles - once true LPs became the norm in the 1950s, conductors and record companies favoured longer performances and gradually re-educated the listening public to expect long and languorous tempi.

Anton Deque said...

Well, let me be the first to congratulate Roger. This is impressive evidence indeed. It isn't just Mahler either as has been alluded to also. Personally, now I find most Mahler impoosible to listen to for long when once I could, all day.

The Plump said...

And it wasn't just the trams and bombs, it was closing time.

Those who remember Cox's Bar at the back of the Free Trade Hall will remember how musicians used to sneak out in the interval to down a couple of pints before playing the second half.

Overtired and emotional said...

And so did the sensible members of the audience given the awfulness of the Free Trade Hall bar. Furthermore, once the orchestra began to return, you knew it was time to resume your seat. Better than any bell.