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Recently a piano student of mine came to a lesson with a Scarlatti sonata (K. 27/L.449) and played the piece at a tempo that seemed much too fast to my ears. Since then I've been pondering the topic of tempo, specifically in relation to the grand piano vs. the harpsichord in performing Baroque music, wondering if there's something about the modern grand that facilitates or even encourages extremely fast playing -- playing that for mechanical/physical/technical/musical reasons would have been inappropriate or even impossible on an earlier keyboard instrument such as the harpsichord.

I've also been looking for some musicologically-informed writing on the topic but haven't yet come across much. What little I've found includes very general comments from Maurice Hinson ("Most of us play Scarlatti too fast... Remember, a fast tempo seems even faster to the listener than to the performer," from "At the Piano with Scarlatti," p.19) and Ralph Kirkpatrick ("All of us, especially the young, have been guilty of playing Scarlatti too fast," from "Domenico Scarlatti," p. 294)

Is anyone aware of in-depth writing on this topic? If so, could you please share references?

There is also the related matter of rapidly repeated notes, as in Scarlatti K.141/L.422. Consider, for instance, this performance of the piece:

You Tube, Scarlatti K. 141 (Argerich)


Martha Argerich is repeatedly striking the same key at a rate of >11 times/second in the opening measures. I have to wonder: Is that sort of single-key repetition speed even possible on a harpsichord, with an action involving a plectrum which plucks and then continues past the string, and which is housed in a jack that then must fall back down under its own weight (compared to a grand piano action involving a hammer that strikes the strings from below and rebounds)?

Again, if anyone is knowledgeable about this and has information to share, please let me know.

Thank you.

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The limitation of repetition speed is not the action, but the technique of the performer. A player piano can repeat notes even on an upright piano faster than most pianists can play, because it releases faster. What matters most is how fast the key can be completely released, and the release is usually easier on a harpsichord than on a modern piano, because the key dip is shallower.

I guess that if you want to increase how fast you can play, you should practice the shortest staccato!


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It seems that there are 2 distinct question here:
(1) interpretively, is baroque keyboard music performed at faster tempo today compared to historical practice?
(2) if so, could this be due to the mechanical limits of historical vs modern instruments?

To tell you the truth, I see little evidence of either. Of course it's not possible to know for certain due to lack of historical records, but keep in mind that baroque keyboard music is not always solo (e.g. Bach Concertos for multiple instruments, BWV 1044 and 1050). Musical interpretation must be universal in terms of what tempo giusto means for an Allegro or Presto movement for example, regardless of whether the instrumentation involves a keyboard.

On (2), I don't know how modern harpsichords compare to historical instruments, but mechanical limit doesn't seem to hinder interpretation either.



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Well for starters listening to Argerich makes me want to give up playing . . . Absolutely fantastic tecnique while retaining interpretation, unreachable.

I have been playing a lot of Bach lately, on an upright piano. I do occasionally play a modern harpsichord that a friend of mine has built for himself. So I started asking myself some of the very same questions you ask.

Harpsi is lighter and keys are less wide. There is no dynamics to speak of and the sound does not stop immediately as it happens on a piano when you release a key.

You can't have repetitions and control so accurate on an harpsi as you have on a piano IMO.

But playing a piano you should respect what a piano is, to an extent, while not betraying the intentions of the composer. Easier said than done.

I refuse to use too much dynamics for one thing. Also in polyphony I refuse to play the subject so much louder than the counter subjects.

I have no problem using the occasional pedal (!!!) mimicking the sustain of an harpsi that you don't have on a piano.

Legato is easier on an Harpsi, on a piano you have to continuously stretch your fingers to achieve the same results.

Speed wise everyone nowadays seems engaged on a race track ! Of course we will never now how fast Scarlatti or Bach played but it is vey probable IMO that a game of virtuosity is into play many times.

So I try to respect both the piano and the composer, not easy at all.

Proof is in the pudding, as always and Argerich leaves me just speechless.

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Originally Posted by marklings
Well for starters listening to Argerich makes me want to give up playing . . . Absolutely fantastic tecnique while retaining interpretation, unreachable.

I have been playing a lot of Bach lately, on an upright piano. I do occasionally play a modern harpsichord that a friend of mine has built for himself. So I started asking myself some of the very same questions you ask.

Harpsi is lighter and keys are less wide. There is no dynamics to speak of and the sound does not stop immediately as it happens on a piano when you release a key.

You can't have repetitions and control so accurate on an harpsi as you have on a piano IMO.

But playing a piano you should respect what a piano is, to an extent, while not betraying the intentions of the composer. Easier said than done.

I refuse to use too much dynamics for one thing. Also in polyphony I refuse to play the subject so much louder than the counter subjects.

I have no problem using the occasional pedal (!!!) mimicking the sustain of an harpsi that you don't have on a piano.

Legato is easier on an Harpsi, on a piano you have to continuously stretch your fingers to achieve the same results.

Speed wise everyone nowadays seems engaged on a race track ! Of course we will never now how fast Scarlatti or Bach played but it is vey probable IMO that a game of virtuosity is into play many times.

So I try to respect both the piano and the composer, not easy at all.

Proof is in the pudding, as always and Argerich leaves me just speechless.
I studied the harpsichord for a couple of semesters as an elective (I am an organist). However except for its use as a continuo instrument, in which it can be wonderful, I find it a most unpleasant instrument. More than ten minutes of listening to a solo harpsichord makes me want to jump out of my skin. I have a hard time regarding it as little more than a prototype or forerunner of the piano, which is a vastly more musical instrument.

Most have probably heard the quote attributed to Sir Thomas Beecham, RE that harpsichords sound like "two skeletons copulating on a hot tin roof."

I agree with your thoughts on interpreting Baroque repertory on the piano. One other thing that, as an organist, often bugs me when listening to pianists (even some great ones) play such music is that the articulation becomes so short and "pecky" as to be nearly ridiculous (and unattractive). Presumably this is in an attempt to replicate the sound of a harpsichord to some extent.

Last edited by RobAC; 11/18/21 07:27 AM.

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Too bad more pianists don’t try to imitate the clavichord instead…

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This is a huge subject, and you have all sorts of views on it from the extreme of Wim Winters on one end (and he's not the first to come up with this 'double beat' theory by the way!) to those who believed that 18th Century speeds were extremely fast and 19th Century speeds much slower. I've read through so much that now I just play it in a way that pleases me. That's all any of us can do. I base my decisions in both knowledge and personal taste, and I might not even play the same piece the same way twice in a row.

Did something happen in the development of the piano that allowed for higher speeds? Well in 1825 or thereabouts, Erard patented the double escapement action which allowed for much faster repetition than had previously been available, and so that certainly allowed for much faster speeds on the piano, but we can hear Jean Rondeau playing fast on the harpsichord in this video clip.

On fortepianos pre double-escapement, repeated notes are more difficult but scale passages are easy. Mozart warned against playing fast, I'll quote the source later if you want me to but it's found fairly easily. Mozart praised good rhythm and accurate articulation above fast speeds. Beethoven almost certainly played faster and in longer phrases, and didn't like Mozart's old fashioned and kind of static way of playing the piano. They aren't baroque composers, but consider that the end of the Baroque is regarded as being the death of Bach in 1750, which was already 30 years into the Galant (the transitional period between baroque and classical), and Mozart died only 41 years after Bach. These aren't huge epochs. The high classical period, from the mature mozart to the Op.2 of Beethoven is a very short period, and by 1798, when Beethoven published the Pathetique sonata, we are already well and truly in the Romantic style, albeit in a classical mould. These periods blended and transitioned into each other, one didn't simply stop and the other begin.

I am also now of the opinion that several different tempo schools existed concurrently. It's likely that in one town you'd have people playing Beethoven sonatas in something that was like Wim Winter's double-beat, and in another town you'd have them playing as close to the impossible speeds of Czerny's metronome markings, in the same year.

At the end of the day all you can do is play with your own convictions, allow yourself to be fluid on the matter, and please your own ear.


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I was never a virtuoso harpsichord player, nor a virtuoso pianist and it's so long since I played an acoustic harpsichord, but the plectra sit very close underneath the strings, rise very little above the strings before hitting the (padded!) jack rail and resuming their position underneath the string, (making that sighing sound as they brush past, having been cut at an angle so the descent is as rapid as possible, with no double sounding note, just the sigh), so there's no obvious reason why a harpsichordist with a light and sensitive touch should not be able to repeat notes very rapidly. Rapid trills are certainly much easier on harpsichords than on grand pianos. My ability, or lack of it, never enabled me to have first hand experience of the different difficulties of fast repeated notes on harpsichord and grand piano. I have always avoided the Scarlatti sonatas with such repetitions like the plague.

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One thing I think we overlook about harpsichords is that they were built one at a time. While the "action" is very simple, cutting and fitting the plectra (whether natural or synthetic) is difficult and very dependent on the skill of the luthier. Adjusting the plectra to be consistent and pluck at the same time (or staggered in the case of multiple stops) is not easy either. I've done a couple now and it is time consuming, exacting, requires good eyesight, and is a very transitory thing. Play it while it is in good shape - in 6 months it will have to be done again. There is much more variation from instrument to instrument than there is with pianos. Harpsichordists need to be their own technician and tuner...

Sam


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Thank you everyone. All of you have given me plenty of food for thought.

In addition, I enjoyed the Jean Rondeau performance. While brisk, it comes nowhere close to Martha Argerich's in terms of tempo, however.
I'll attach a waveform comparison below so you can see: she is playing slightly more than 12 notes/second; he is playing slightly more than 9.

In terms of fingering, I note that for the opening repeated notes, Argerich seems to be using 321 321 while Rondeau appears to be playing 31 31 31.

[img]https://spark.adobe.com/post/2oXQaZlwq2r3e/[/img]

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Originally Posted by Sam S
One thing I think we overlook about harpsichords is that they were built one at a time. While the "action" is very simple, cutting and fitting the plectra (whether natural or synthetic) is difficult and very dependent on the skill of the luthier. Adjusting the plectra to be consistent and pluck at the same time (or staggered in the case of multiple stops) is not easy either. I've done a couple now and it is time consuming, exacting, requires good eyesight, and is a very transitory thing. Play it while it is in good shape - in 6 months it will have to be done again. There is much more variation from instrument to instrument than there is with pianos. Harpsichordists need to be their own technician and tuner...

Sam

Heartfelt agreement to that, Sam! Unless you have vast amounts of money a harpsichord owner needs to learn how to tune; replace broken strings; replace broken plectra. It took me years, with only a tuning fork and a tuning hammer, to learn how to tune 3 ranks reasonably properly. The top bass A strings tended to go fairly frequently, often whilst tuning: I often became aware when starting to tune the highest bass A string that it wouldn't stand being tuned and got mentally prepared for the replacement process. Individual plectra replacement becomes fairly straightforward: blending in to the others can be tricky. Regulating a whole rank is a mammoth task.

As you will know, the effort is worth it when your instrument is indeed well-tempered (as are you) and the joy that comes from really knowing your instrument. I felt a lot closer to my harpsichord, a sense of intimacy, than I felt with any piano I owned.

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Originally Posted by Sam S
Harpsichordists need to be their own technician and tuner...

Indeed! I often end up spending 20 minutes on a tuning and some mechanical touch-up before I actually play.


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Originally Posted by sandalholme
Unless you have vast amounts of money a harpsichord owner needs to learn how to tune; replace broken strings; replace broken plectra.

I agree that it is very useful to know how to occasionally tune a harpsi, but I take exception to the idea that it takes vast amounts of money to maintain. I have made a deal with one of the best tuners/techs in Paris and he comes in once a month for an hour or two. (OK, he lives nearby, and also checks the organ and fortepiano). For this I pay about as much as the three flicks streaming suscriptions that so many seem to afford.


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Vikendios, you are fortunate to live in Paris and at this time. Go back several decades, in rural England, harpsichord technicians would be many miles away. Outside London and a few other major cities harpsichord technicians were effectively absent. Any cause for summoning a technician would certainly have taxed my budget then with a young family. You are also fortunate in having a stable instrument, especially if it has a 4' register, which in my experience can go out in minutes, certainly in hours. Stability is also dependent upon the type of instrument: a reasonably authentic copy of an original instrument is likely to be less stable that a solidly built 20th/21st century model.

So we are referring to different times and I'm glad professional support in maintaining a harpsichord is much more readily available and affordable.


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