Wim says that somewhere in the middle of 19th century the interpretations of tempo indications went astray. He gives nice proofs. What do you think of all of this?
There has been a lot of changes in the way we think past music. After 1950 new elements and people like Harnoncourt have completely changed our perception of how baroque music and even classic music of Mozart should be played. This is due to the work of musicologists who have challenged and critized the established way of thinking. Science is progressing the same way by challenging the established theories.
So I do not see the theory of WW as an issue in itself and it is good that people do not take for granted what is the dominant way of thinking as long as they do so in a scholarly and with an (as much as possible) objective and rational approach.
Many comments I have seen about WW seems exaggerate; WW is obviously a good musician even if not at the top virtuoso level and he has obviously more musical knowledge than most amateur pianists. It is interesting that someone who has such a background would advance a theory so contrary to the established line of thinking. I do not think it is appropriate to talk about historical revisionism as at least for some composers the exact tempo at which the pieces should be played is just an assumption and also largely depends on our modern taste.
When analyzing the average tempo at which pianists play classic music standard repertoire, we can see a trend of acceleration vs the 1960s interpretations, with more emphasis toward virtuoso interpretation. There is more emphasis on a more tense, nervous view of pieces with faster tempo. This is obviously a high level trend notwithstanding many exceptions, in the past and in our time.
The issue with WW position is not so much that it is disturbing our habits and modern taste, but that it is not done through an objective analysis. WW is taking as a supporting evidence one document, which can be read different ways, but not all other available documents that could contradict his point of view. The double beat is known since the baroque period so there is nothing really new. Also when reading all the published theory books late 18th and mid 19th century, anybody can notice significant differences of point of view on some topics. So taking just one document is not representative. Also the issue with WW approach is that it is a systematic one that would mean that all metronome markings would have to be divided by half, which very clearly does not make a lot of sense for many pieces. We have enough supporting elements, even if not they do not give us a 100% proof, that Chopin pieces should not be played half speed, per the composer intentions.
The somehow dogmatic position of WW however does hide an interesting question, which is not new by any mean, and that is whether there is an appropriate tempo to play a piece of music. Irrespective of what the metronome indication of the composer, how far can we alter the tempo while being still in line with the music structure and the composer initial intent. Sometime we do not even know what the composer intent was to start with, so how far can we slow down or speed up?
My take is that there is a fairly wide spectrum of possible tempos, in the range of +30% for many pieces (and sometime more even changing completely the piece from an allegro to an andante) and that at the end it is more a matter of consistency of the interpretation and musical trends/taste of our time rather than an absolute target number. An interesting example would be the famous controversy on the hammerklavier sonata opus 106 by Beethoven.
This sonata is the only one out of the 32, that has a metronome indication, confirmed to be from Beethoven himself. The indication is half note at 138 for the first movement. It is an incredibly fast tempo which has never been recorded by anyone. Though Czerny, a long time student of Beethoven, writes and confirms that this is a correct tempo, even if he recognizes that it is a fierce one and technically extremely difficult. However Ignaz Moscheles who also worked with Beethoven consider it to be too fast and recommends 112 !
Actually it is so difficult that no pianist has achieved the 138. Even if one assumes playing it on a lighter keyboard, and if technically maybe achievable, the musical results would be barely listenable judging by the few attempts done so far (Badura-Skoda at 116 for example).
The closest one has ever get to is the Schnabel version of 1935 at a very close 131. Not to diminish the talent of such a great pianist, but the end result is less than convincing with a constant rush and lack of articulation which makes this version less of a piece of music than a pure technical demonstration.
Since this sonata is one of the most recorded, every known pianist has recorderd it so we have plenty of example and range of tempo. As said going from the 135 by Schnabel down to Gould at 80 and Nikolayevna below 80 (she was already quite old when she recorded it), so a 40% difference !
Not to offend people who might like one version or another, I can pick 2 versions which have been both recognized as outstanding interpretations: the Solomon version of 1952 and the Gilels version of 1983 (DG studio recording). These 2 versions are as different as they can be: the Solomon version is at average 110-115 and the Gilels version at 90-95 (btw very close to the tempo of Serkin 1968). So basically taking Gilels, we are at one third of the target speed set by Beethoven and confirmed by Czerny. In terms of musical result, the Solomon version is quite tense/modern; with the Gilels version it is more lyrical and has clearly the character of a classic composition, closer and in line with the legacy of Mozart and Haydn.
So which one is in fact better aligned with the intent of the composer. Why did Beethoven put a tempo that is barely playable ? We will probably never have a proper answer to that question. Some explanations around are that the metronome used by Beethoven was old, others that the composer being death was not able to properly evaluate the speed. In both cases though it does not explain why Czerny confirmed the tempo. He was not death and he had a working metronome. It may be that Beethoven and Czerny wanted to put a sort of ambition to show that the piece needed to be played fast but not expecting anyone to reach that speed (though it is not what Czerny wrote). Maybe it applied only to certain passages or maybe they used the metronome differently. Another possible explanation is that the speed perceived internally is different from the actual result. I often times use headphones and the speed that I perceive when I play is slower than the actual result once I listen to the recorded version.
The conclusion out of that is that even for something that is after all only 200 years old and Beethoven and Chopin are only 20 years apart, we do not know clearly how the composer intended the piece to be played exactly and the various versions we have give excellent but very different renditions with tempos that are 30% apart. Our modern taste for speed and tension tends to push the tempo up but is that what the composer wanted ? Maybe even that the internal vision of Beethoven in his world of silence may not have any proper transcription.
Since we are the one listening to the music, I guess it does not really matter. It we like these pieces to be played fast and we like to think of Beethoven that way, so be it. After all the music is meant as a communication vehicle and as such it is a reflection of our modern society.