Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Shostakovich's Tempos

This week I am rehearsing the Shostakovich Piano Quintet for a concert at the inaugural Foulger International Music Festival (, which takes place during the month of July. (This particular concert is on Friday, July 6, 2012). As with any chamber music piece, my colleagues and I have been trying to agree on good tempos for the various sections of the piece. (I am happy to be playing the piece with violinists Miranda Cuckson and Anton Miller; violist Christof Huebner; and cellist Tom Landschoot).  Shostakovich has indicated some metronome markings in the score, but while some of them are feasible others seem less than ideal. In fact, I have had this experience with other pieces by Shostakovich. Was his metronome inaccurate? Were mistakes made in the printed edition (or were the metronome marks even made up by editors)? Or was he just crazy?

I have not undertaken anything like a systematic study of Shostakovich's metronome markings, but one advantage we have with this composer is that he himself made recordings of some of his own music. One philosophical question is, should we play a piece of music the same way a composer plays his music? And if we don't try to imitate that 100%, what things are important to "copy" and which are more open to our own approach?

This is really the central question for all performers: what is the best way to play a particular piece of music? What were the composer's intentions? (It isn't always obvious just from reading the score literally). And do composers sometimes not see the possibilities or potential in their own pieces? When a composer lived recently enough (like Shostakovich) that we can hear their way of performing a piece, does it automatically mean that is the definitive version of the piece?

Further complicating matters, in just the area of tempo: Shostakovich doesn't follow his own metronome markings. In fact, the deviation between score and his performance (a recording he made with the Beethoven Quartet made in 1960, about 20 years after the same five musicians premiered the piece) is quite large. In the first movement, there are two important metronome markings: the opening is quarter note=72, according to the score, and Shostakovich plays it at about quarter note=50-54. The next section is marked as dotted-quarter note=72, and Shostakovich plays it around 48! Here is the audio for the first movement, as played by Shostakovich and the Beethoven Quartet. A few other versions follow:

Richter and the Borodin Quartet, in the following performance, start at a similar tempo. The second section starts slowly and ends up getting faster, but ultimately around 57 at its peak (still about 20% slower than 72). (The whole work is here, not only the first movement)

Glenn Gould plays with wonderful attention to counterpoint (of course) and with a more Romantic approach than either of the Russians. In any case the tempo of the opening is just as slow or perhaps even slower, about 44. The next section is the fastest so far, at about 61. Unfortunately the quartet he is playing with (the Symphonia Quartet) is not at the same level of technical or musical command as Gould is.

Finally, a much more recent performance by my friends and colleagues the Borromeo Quartet and Alexander Korsantia, in a live concert from about a year ago. (I myself had the privilege of playing the same piece with the Borromeos many years ago, when I was in school, and will be playing the Strauss Violin Sonata in about 10 days with first violinist Nick Kitchen). Their tempos range quite a bit in the opening, from about 41-60, and in the next section around 60.

In other words, no one plays anything close to Shostakovich's printed metronome markings - not Shostakovich, nor anyone else. A pianist named Alice Shapiro wrote about her experience actually asking Shostakovich about his metronome markings in another piece here:
And if you would like to measure how fast people are playing, you can use the "tap" function on this online metronome:

If you want to hear my performance of the piece (all five movements, of course, not just the first!) you can actually hear it streaming live this Friday night, by clicking here: