The thief of time?

No, it’s not procrastination I’m thinking of, it’s Rachmaninoff.

Tempo rubato translates as ‘robbed or stolen time’ and is the performance practice of slowing down or speeding up a phrase in music, mostly without any indication from the composer that such tempo alterations are required.  For the classically minded it’s known (pejoratively) as ‘pulling the music around’ while the more romantically inclined call it ‘expressivity’. Of course, even the classicists will concede that a certain amount of rubato is desirable – music played by machines is (thus far) a pretty soulless affair –but at what point does expressivity tip over into mawkish sentimentality?

Composers aren’t exempt either; they can build rubato into their scores with ritardandos, accelerandos, espressivos, etc. In the 1950s and 1960s the Russian romantics, particularly Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff (who’d had the temerity to be popular!), were treated particularly sniffily by the more high-minded musical establishment. Things, thankfully, have eased significantly since then but the dichotomy remains: the question is, where would you place yourself?

Here’s Rachmaninoff, the virtuoso pianist, as interpreter. The Chopin Nocturne he’s playing (the score is on the link below the video) clearly calls for a certain amount of ‘pulling around’ but is the Rachmaninoff version an exercise in self-indulgence or does is pierce to the heart of the piece?

Chopin Op9 No2

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One thought on “The thief of time?

  1. I really enjoyed your first session and particularly listening to Rachmaninoff playing his Opus 3 Morceaux de piano and your analysis of the C sharp minor prelude. I have been practising a short Elegy for piano by Arensky, to whom the Opus 3 pieces are dedicated, who taught Rachmaninoff at the Moscow conservatory, and the parallels are very plain to see in the extreme dynamic contrasts and the gradual build up through increasingly loud blocks of rising and falling music. So thank you for a very inspiring session!
    And, by an extraordinary coincidence my piano teacher turned up today with a new piece for me to practice and it’s an Impromptu by Lyadov who you introduced at the end of yesterday’s session!

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