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Need for Speed

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There are few musical moments more well-worn than the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. But it turns out that Beethoven might have made a last-ditch effort to keep his music from ever feeling familiar, to keep pushing his listeners to a kind of psychological limit.

Alan Pierson, Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, tells Jad a story: late in life, Beethoven got his hands on a metronome, went back into his symphonies, and marked them with tempos that are shockingly fast -- so fast, in fact, that most conductors simply refuse to play them as marked. To investigate, we gather up a quartet to give us a feel for Beethoven's speedy beats, and we talk to composer and author Matthew Guerrieri about the way fast tempos push us and unsettle us. But is that really what Beethoven was going for? WQXR host Terrance McKnight says given his background and personality, Beethoven clearly didn't want his music to be easy and comfortable. So, as an homage to our new found vision of Ludwig van B., we ask Alan and his players to take the Fifth to a whole new level.

Big thanks to our Brooklyn Philharmonic musicians: Deborah Buck and Suzy Perelman on violin, Arash Amini on cello, and Ah Ling Neu on viola.

And check out The First Four Notes, Matthew Guerrieri's book on Beethoven's Fifth.

Guests:

Terrance McKnight and Alan Pierson

Comments [2]

HANS VAN LEEUWEN from Iowa, right now? Turkey

This is amazing. I started out being ready to be entertained by some experimentation with music, but I ended up being really impressed! The music sounds more impressive at this higher speed.
While musicians have to work harder, it would bring in opportunities, in our busy lives, to speed up some activities. Listening to a Beethoven symphony at a higher speed will save time to listen to more music or do something else.
Of course, I am not really serious about this. I am not one of those engineers that want brass instruments played with a compressor and drums with pneumatic equipment. I generally do not like changing opera settings to different periods or settling like Rigoletto driving onto the stage in a small Fiat or the Capuleti and Montecchi portrayed as rival gangs in Chicago. But playing Beethoven at a really high speed as the old master may have wanted, seems like a really good idea.

Dec. 04 2013 01:15 PM
John Kounios from Pennsylvania

Listen to Artur Schnabel's classic recordings of the Beethoven piano sonatas made back in the 1930s. (You can hear many of them on YouTube.) He played these pieces close to Beethoven's metronome markings. Many people find them rushed at first, but on repeated listening, it's hard to go back and listen to other pianists' slower tempi. In particular, listen to the first and last movements of the Hammerklavier sonata. Schnabel can't quite play all the notes and makes a lot of mistakes. But listen a few times and it will just sound right. Another point to consider: This may not be just a Beethoven phenomenon. If you listen to recordings made during the 1920s and 1930s, many performers played at tempi that nowadays seem very fast. For example, on YouTube you can hear Rachmaninoff play his own 2nd piano concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He takes the first and third movements much more quickly than any modern pianist would. Similarly, recordings of Wagner operas from the 30s sound much faster than modern performances. It's possible that people's perception of what is fast music has changed over time.

Nov. 30 2013 02:13 PM

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