Friday, 14 December 2012

The Speed of Jean Sibelius

At The Castle Gate

If you've watched The Sky At Night religiously since the mid 1960s, then you've seen all but a few dozen of Sir Patrick's 700+ episodes. Alas, the ones you missed will probably have to stay missing, their tapes having been wiped or thrown out, if indeed they ever existed (many episodes were simply broadcast live).

You've also heard the opening strains of Sibelius's Pelléas et Mélisande a corresponding number of times, in this recording of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. Such long term exposure to that introduction has, you've almost certainly found, two noticeable side effects. One is perfect pitch: at the close of a hi-hat you can sing its opening chord, bell clear and literally pitch perfect, at any time of any day or night. Man, that's got to be the world's most unbelievably annoying earworm. The second effect, and the one exercising me here today, is a very strong and ingrained opinion concerning exactly what tempo the piece should be played at.

Sir Patrick's death last Sunday occurs as I'm completing the central corpus of a symphony collection, and turning to concentrate on other, equally non-vocal, classical musical forms. So naturally, I was prompted to add to the old Micro-SDXC card, this suite of incidental music written for Maurice Maeterlinck's 1892 drama of doomed infatuation. Turning to Amazon, I thought I'd spin the old amateur astronomer, virtuoso musician, composer and Krautbasher in his grave, by downloading this Deutsche Grammophon Masters recording of Berliner Philharmoniker, under the onetime Nazi maestro himself, the Austrian Herbert von Karajan.

Now, I've had plenty of speed issues with certain grand maestro composers before, most notably Herr Herbert here, but also Sir Georg Solti, Leonard Bernstein, and a few others (by contrast, I always find Daniel Barenboim perfectly to taste). But sweet mother of Adolf, nothing in the history of music could ever have prepared me ever for the glacial interminability of this treatment, ever. Whatever the merits of the rest of the suite, that first geologically grinding movement is bloody unlistenable.

What's the Frequency?

Clearly at this point I had to know which was "right", in the sense of being closer to the composer's original intention. Because, you know, that can change everything. If this impossibly, inhumanly lento melodrama corresponded more faithfully to the thoughts of Jean Sibelius, then I'd just have to learn to live without Beecham's much more familiar dancefloor aerobic workout. Luckily we can decide these things independently. On Sibelius's original score, there's a tempo command specifying
which is to say: serious and ... widely? ... expansively I guess, with 48 minims (half-notes) per minute. The time signature is 2:2, so there are two minims in a bar, and the piece comprises 60 bars in total, with no repeats. Oh wait, two of those bars are in 3:2 time - Jean, you crafty devil! - so we'll call it 61 equivalent bars of 2:2 to compensate. That's a grand total of 122 minims, which at a mean frequency of 48 per minute, should take just 2 minutes and 32½ seconds to play.

Run time of the Karajan recording: six minutes dead.


So that settles it then. Just as I'd suspected, Herbert von Karajan was a grandstanding, temporising, scene-stealing, attention-seeking hack of a drama queen. Yes, I have indeed wasted my money with this purchase. And yet...

The funny thing is, once I found the score and followed it along with the music, this interpretation really started to grow on me. And you know, even the canonical Beecham stretched it out to 3½ minutes.

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