Playing too fast

As with comments by other members, I too dislike the contemporary practice of playing in general much too fast, both fast and slow movements. I am sensitive to this because when I was young I used to play very fast - because I could - and eventually many people criticised it so eventually I got the message and slowed down. Nowadays I revel in the sumptuous sonic colour of the harpsichord rather than dazzling velocity. Perhaps this wisdom comes with age? I’m not sure.

I don’t believe recording duration limitations have influenced this as people did not speed up to fit things on 78s, to minimise the number of heavy records in a classical box. And for CD’s, well, just record a program that fits, or make a double CD set. If this idea was correct then now that CDs are considered obsolete and most artists have moved to streaming services and youtube where there are now no restricted time limits then there would be a general trend to slowing down again, which the experimental evidence does not confirm.

I think it’s just the frantic, accelerated pace of contemporary life, where everyone is busy all the time, and people have forgotten how to relax and savour music in the desperate struggle for work and position and fame and so on. It’s a type of malady. Sometimes at concerts I wonder why people play so fast. It seems they want to hurry to the after-party or the pub.

Now, there’s Blandine Rannou. She is the opposite of this madness. Her Rameau recordings are so slow that it is quite a shock to the system. Perhaps she has gone to the other extreme in a reactionary fashion.


The Olympic Games are to blame - D

From “Andrew Bernard via The Jackrail” <>
Date 01/12/2022 13:09:39
Subject [The Jackrail] [General] Playing too fast

| andro Andrew Bernard
December 1 |

  • | - |

Re playing too fast.

I second what other members have said.
We should not forget, however, the baroque aesthetics did give space to the “aesthetics of marvel” or what is called in English. In music playing, this translates in virtuosity (as well as other expressive means). Think of hand crossings in Scarlatti. So in certain pieces I’d say let the player indulge to their own virtuosity. How many pieces? maybe 5-10%, maybe less.
We have some world-class players here on the Jackrail, and I’d like to hear from them if I am right in thinking that in concert the heart-beat rate rises and so the excitation and the breathing, and this can lead to a faster playing than when at home practicing alone. I have - sort of - experienced this on myself.

On a side note, one can not talk about how fast music has to played, without thinking to Wim Winters. I admit I used to like his playing very very much. Expressive, never too fast, varied, an elegant sense of rubato… Then he came with the double-beat theory. He is so much a good musician that even when playing so slow he can often make the music say something, but the coherence of the phrases is often lost.


Pace Andrew, people sometimes did speed up to fit things on 78s.

But actually, I think the fast tempi are influenced by pianists who play our repertoire. Such people are used to playing Liszt and Chopin with lots of notes and naturally apply this to Bach. Sviatoslav Richter us a good example, and I dont blame him for his fast tempi – whether he realises it or not, he is, after all, playing a transcription by using the piano. But unfortunately, as far as I am concerned, the music frequently becomes unrecognisable in harpsichord terms. Pianists also often play Fr. Couperin too quickly. But L. Couperin, Froberger, Sweelinck and Frescobaldi, whose music is not played on the piano, do not suffer in the same way.



I have read with interest the comments on likely baroque tempi, as I have struggled with that issue for some time. I am of advanced age and that may be an excuse for favoring less fast renditions of compositions of that period.— I am a push-over for J.S Bach and am mindful of the only refence how he viewed tempi through Carl Philipp’s comment, that his father liked his music “frisch”, which translates into (Langenscheidt’s Dictionary) “brisk, lively or fresh”, not very fast. I also subscribe to Marie-Claire Alain’s viewpoint, that, as J.S Bach was so heavily committed to the organ, instruments of that time connected the keyboard mechanically to the valves activating the pipes and, especially when multiple registers were involved simultaneously, the mechanisms did not react with the speed to which we may have become accustomed in the post-romantic period. It would seem illogical that Bach completely divorced his thinking and feeling from the mechanically dictated capabilities of the organ when composing with stringed keyboards in mind. Being mindful of J.S. Bach’s penchant for total clarity in his compositions I have analyzed some of Gustav Leonhard’s Bach renditions — I am generally an admirer of his performances—by analyzing their note-by-note clarity (slowdown via the Audacity app) and found that trills often were not really clear, which I find inconsistent with Bach’s intentions for absolute clarity.

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Good arguments. But I do need to add something to the mix: The pieces Bach wrote for keyboard, even the ones for organ, were not necessarily written for performance on the organ, they were for study of how to play on the organ. And the most frequent instrument for study in his world was the clavichord. There is next to no mechanism in a clavichord to get in anybody’s way, one can play lighting-fast on it.

I will mention that I give monthly Lunchtime Organ Concerts at my church, for the sake of getting people together and experiencing music, although I am not really trained as a concert organist. One month I wanted to program the big D major prelude and fugue, I forget the BWV number; but the week before the concert I looked it up on Wikipedia for nice stories to tell people about it (other than that it was used for the baptism scene in the Godfather) and was horrified to see that the article there thought it takes 12 minutes. It takes me 16 or 18 or something. I like it my way, but I changed the program to something else.

Judy Conrad (clavichordist)

Hello Judy, I hardly think WIkipedia is an authoritative source for duration of Bach organ pieces. Apart from the fact that I think it’s absurd to even quote any timing, given Bach had no metronome technology, and did not give a tempo indication, the reference given for that at the bottom of the article is missing and invalid.

Since Wikipedia is editable (to a certain extent - some people aggressively delete edits imagining they are the sole owner of a page, which I have encountered far too many times, even though it violates Wikipedia policy) I may very well delete that!

You play it at your speed - I am sure it will be great!

My feeling is that a note on the harpsichord needs more time to develop than on a piano. There seems to be a bunch of initial overtones that fade away quickly. This is a perception from the keyboard aka. worst seat in the house.


There is nothing invalid about the reference: it is just cryptic. 443-485-2 defines a 2-CD set of
Bach’s “Great Organ Works” played by Peter Hurford, who was no slow poke.

As a student, in error I turned over two pages at once for him during a recital, and he didnt blink an eyelid.


Update Wikipedia!

I did a brief survey of timings of a dozen recordings on IMSLP, and various websites and so on. The time for BWV 523 varies from an outlier of 9:30 to an average of about 11 to 11:30.

You call that a huge variation, Andrew? Ha! :slight_smile:
Three years ago, in my paper " Performing François Couperin’s Les Baricades Mistérieuses " published on Harpsichord & fortepiano, I commented that this famous piece has been recorded as slow as minim=56 and as fast as minim=110. That’s a 100% variation!
And in this particular case, my recommended time was 81, “in medio stat virtus”!

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Never mentioned a huge variation Claudio. Only that the 9 minute one stands out somewhat. In fact, the way my post was intended to be read is that there is quite a tight range, I found, clustering pretty closely around 11.

Ok. I’ll regret this but…
If you want extreme tempo, just remember Glenn Gould…
NOT that he played too fast… or too slow…
I must say I share Scott Ross’ opinion…

This is an interesting discussion. I share what seems to be the general viewpoint from other posters that tempi these days are often too fast. I think that there are several reasons why this has happened. First of all I think the harpsichord world has become very competitive, as everyone shares their performances online, and comparing tempi is the easiest comparison one can make and many people feel they should win the race.

Secondly I think there is often a lack of musicianship, a poor understanding of the harpsichord and of the repertoire itself, and a misunderstanding of what virtuosity is.

The most dazzling performance from Jean Rondeau, to my ears, is his live performance of Louis Couperin for Radio France, in homage to Blandine Verlet. There were no hair-raising runs, no hand-crossing, no unfathomable batteries of arpeggios - it’s not the repertoire for any of that. But what LC demands, and what Rondeau accomplished, was extremely fine gradations in touch and articulation. It is far more difficult music than it appears on the page, and Rondeau’s performance was virtuosic.

When I was first introduced to early music, in the mid 1970s, I was told that, in comparison to what modern ensembles were doing in the 1950s and 1960s, the true baroque aesthetic was more likely to be ‘playing fast movements a bit more slowly, and slow movements a bit more quickly’. This over-simplification was no doubt influenced by the two leading lights of the time, Harnoncourt and Leonhardt. Nonetheless, I find that from a musical point of view, it’s not a bad starting point. (It was a running joke in a chamber ensemble that I was in a few years ago that whenever we read through fast movements, my comment would be ‘I think it needs to be a little slower’.)

The harpsichord itself definitely does benefit from a tempo which allows the sonority to develop - the ‘bloom’ of the plucked string, the cumulative effect of notes held down etc.

As someone has already posted, of course there are pieces which really do benefit from being played at breakneck speed. And these pieces shine all the more brightly if we don’t try to play EVERYTHING at crazy tempi.

I don’t agree at all with M-C Alain’s suggestion that tracker organs are slower to respond. In my experience they respond more quickly than other forms of action. Some old organs are heavy, especially when coupled, and some are not. (Bass notes in some stops can be slow to speak - that is not a matter of action.) One does have to consider the church acoustics as well.