Tempi in 4 Recordings

Peter Maxwell Davies is himself a pianist, and although he has often written for outstanding musicians (most notably the legendary virtuoso, John Ogdon) it is safe to say that he carefully and purposefully marks his scores as he imagines they should sound. He also has a reputation of uncompromised expectations of his performers, and through writing such music as he does, extended technique evolves and is stretched to new levels. It is also true that tempo is just one musical means of many to an end, and the experience of the music as a whole is more important. The interpreter is wise to consider each indicated tempo, but more importantly understand the fuller aim of the composer. An interpretation will need to strike a balance between technical solutions, score directions, accuracy, and personal discoveries. I think the Italianate descriptors before each movement or section are key indicators of what the audience must hear. If a different tempo better expresses a cantabile, allegro Ma non troppo, or the rhythmic and textural clarity of the composition in the particular acoustic, with the particular instrument, then the choice should be sensitive to that.
It is useful to compare the recorded tempi with those indicated in the score in a general way, by measuring the durations of each interpretation, movement by movement. The measured duration of a movement is directly proportional to the tempi used, even though the two terms are not synonyms. All of these seven movements maintain a consistent divisor beat throughout (apart from a few specific rallentandi, pauses, introductions or codas). There is no supposition of a qualitative comparison to be drawn from the following table, but the approach of each pianist can be better understood with a comparison. The table shows the differences between a duration derived from the score indications (approximated due to a few rallentandi and short pauses), and the three commercial recordings and a privately recorded public performance of my own. Stephen Pruslin’s LP timings were measured during a transfer to tape.

The first observation is those durations I have calculated from the indicated markings.  The composer’s tempi are higher, not just as regards the ambitions of the two scherzo movements, (2 and 6) but in fact, for every movement, including the slower 3rd and 5th, where purely technical demands are not great. The final movement has such a quick indication in relation to every recording, that one wonders whether that speed could ever be attained and whether is even an ‘error’ by printer or composer. The dedicatee Stephen Pruslin follows a metronome mark much nearer to 60 than the indicated 160!

Relationships of tempi

I think that the more important observation is how the duration of movements relate to each other, and such proportional architecture is easy to visualise in the chart below. Every recording follows a similar pattern of these relationships, regardless that some have slower tempi in general e.g. Pruslin, and others quicker overall e.g. Holzman. There are some exceptions ro note which, interestingly, draw my attention to parts of the sonata where problems of interpretation are particularly apparent; with the fourth, central, tripartite ‘Cantabile con moto’ raising the most questions.

Of the four pianists it is only certain that Stephen Pruslin used a score (manuscript or fair copy) other than the first printed Edition, so it is quite possible the metronome marks were not already fixed, or were different. Furthermore as the dedicatee working closely with the composer Pruslin will have had opportunities to discuss the work in detail prior to his performances and recording.

More to follow…