Clock Tower- things get interesting with Shostakovich

Second day of hard work in beautiful Durango. Spent most of my morning getting used to a cello that is very different from mine. It only takes minutes to figure out what one needs to do differently on a new instrument. Less bow pressure or contact point generally closer to the bridge might be the name of the game for the bow. It takes only a second to realize that 4th position is a little further from the corner than on my cello. However, it takes quite a few hours to stop thinking about those corrections and to start incorporating them naturally. I’m not there yet, but I at least had a few good stretches today. I don’t know how pianists are able to change instruments all the time and still play in tune. Wait…..

So, today was our first slightly spirited discussion, which I relay to you not to spread gossip, but because it brings out a very interesting point. We were rehearsing the Shostakovich Piano Quintet, an amazing masterpiece and somehow quite different from much of his music (although it has a haunting quote from the Fifth Symphony, which he wrote just before it). It seems to me that he’s thought a lot about tempi in this piece: the first movement introduction and allegro are both marked with the same metronome mark as are the second and third movements (one is a slow fugue marked quarter=84 the second is a scherzo marked bar=84). The fourth movement is also marked 72, the same tempo as the first two sections of the first movement. Along with these overlapping tempi, there are thematic references that come round and round throughout the piece.

Our discussion became spirited whe we came to the scherzo. Two of my colleagues felt strongly that it should be played quite a bit more slowly than the metronome mark. They have some good arguments to make- one is that many groups, including the Borodin and Richter, who would probably have coached the piece with Shostakovich, do play it that slowly. Also, at the slower tempo it is somewhat easier to give each note a sense of brutal intensity and weight, which can be very effective. One of them also refered to an annecdote about DSCH’s metronome running at the wrong speed- according to her source, his metronome could read 20 points too high.

 Both of my colleagues are exceptional musicians, people of high intelligence, and deeply invested in Shostakovich’s music. They both happen to be Russian, as well. Any recent RCICW students will remember me talking about the 8th quartet last week and saying that it was important to know the recordings of the musicians who knew and worked with Shostakovich, as there is a performing tradition there that we can learn from.

Nonetheless, I’m struggling to feel that the slower tempo can be right. If anything, I think most groups tend to take the fugue a bit faster than it’s marked, and if one then takes the scherzo slower than it’s marked, his tempo relationship ceases to exist. If there was just one re-occurance of a metronome mark in the piece, maybe one could write it off as a coincidence, but it seems that these tempo links are somehow integral to DSCH’s overall concept.

Yes, we can learn from the Borodins, but surely we have to treat the text as a higher authority? Yes, there is a tradition of playing the movement slower, but I’m skeptical about whether we should accept that tradition. Why? More than almost any composer except Beethoven, it seems like Shostakovich’s music has always been played at “traditional” tempos that are quite different than those he marked. The last movement of the 5th Symphony with Bernstein’s famous keystone cops ending is a good example. However, it seems that as the decades go by and people do more research and analysis, most of his metronome markings seem quite integral to the formal construction of the piece. Again, look at the Fifth Symphony- both the first and last movents are constructed in tempo arches. If the last movement ends fast, something of the structure of the entire symphony is lost (nevermind that it was never supposed to be a happy ending).

Like Beethoven, it seems like we ought to at least be like Mr. Rodgers and be in the neighborhood of his tempi, and more importantly than that, we ought to recognize when he asks for specific relationships. Just as the pulse of the last movement of Beethovn 5 MUST be slower than the third movement (this is non-negotiable, never mind George Szell), so it seems that the pulses of the 2nd and 3rd movements of the quintet must be the same.

I’m going to re-listen to the Borodin recording tonight and do a little web reading. Just when you dig your heels in on something like  this, one must remember that the composer himself might have told the Borodins “not so fast.”

Nevertheless, I’m sceptical about the broken metronome theory. After all, we’re talking about Dmitri freaking Shostakovich here- I can’t imagine him being off by much. He was not only a composer but a pianist who played every day, and a genius. I doubt a man who could play at the piano almost anything he’d ever heard really needed the metronome anyway…

This is what it’s all about, though: challenging our own assumptions to get closer to the composer. One day I’m advocading it to my students, today I’m doing it.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Spread the word. Share this post!

About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *