Tempo Problems

The development of this page was halted by John’s deteriorating health and subsequent death.

The experimental recordings on this web-site were made over quite a long period and they show a gradual change in my approach to tempo. The scholarly method that my work on rhythmic inequality had necessitated seemed to call for a new rethink about baroque style in general. Though my early recordings went at the usual brisk speed that is still favoured in this repertoire, I soon realized that ‘swinging’ the short notes in a piece does not necessarily imply a fast tempo. In fact the contrary might be true. Jazz, for instance, has not always embraced fast tempi, though admittedly bebop did seem to make a fetish of them.

So, following my instinct as always, I experimented with steadier speeds, and the ‘For unto us’ from my early inégal Messiah is an example. Here I chose a tempo which I felt suited the singers and I was pleased with the result.

For unto us a child is born

East Devon Choral Society, conducted by John Byrt.

The Bach cantata excerpts that follow at nos. 11 and 12 of the website continued this trend. In the movement from Bach’s cantata 21 I deliberately chose a speed that I felt would match Bach’s particularly melancholy theme in this piece. I wanted to see if inequality would work at such a slow tempo, though I also realized that this chorus would naturally follow the adagio of Bach’s instrumental introduction. In Cantata 140 I was actually reacting against a very fast performance that I had heard when a young student and which I felt could not have been Bach’s intention. I still believe that such extreme tempi may well not be authentic and could be merely a fashion that has grown up recently (and not only in baroque music, I fear). In my view rhythmic inequality requires a relaxed, dance-related style which is surely in keeping with the spirit of the age.

Actually there is some genuine scholarly evidence that supports steady tempi in baroque music. It would seem that in Bach’s day the allemande and the Lutheran chorale were probably taken at the same speed (they already shared the common time metre). Bach makes this very clear in his treatment of ‘Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland’ in the Orgelbüchlein, for here he not only embellishes the chorale melody but also surrounds it with allemande-like semiquaver motives (see no 16 in my website). This close relationship between allemande and chorale is also confirmed in Buxtehude’s variations on ‘Auf meinen lieben Gott’ where the double of the chorale is essentially an allemande.

Most of my research has been on rhythmic inequality and this I hope will stand. But I wasn’t expecting it to uncover another issue – about tempo – which people clearly feel very strongly about but which I have instinctive views on too. I don’t expect the current taste for fast tempi to change quickly, and I even find myself coming round to it myself. Catherine Bass’s ‘Hark the ech’ing air’ and ‘Rejoice greatly’ (both very fast) are certainly a great artistic success and my Dixit dominus (also fast) will I hope stand firm in the future. But I already feel that my ‘For unto us’ was on the slow side and I shall certainly never accept Colin Davis’s typical performance at crotchet = 140! I still remember the original ultra-fast Oxford performance of Wachet auf that prompted my ‘steadier’ version on the website and I feel that Bach would have approved of the fugato that concludes my recorded extract.

My 2003 CD is, I admit, often on the slow side but I hope that at least the inventions in A mi and G mi and the sinfonia in D, as well as the F sharp minor prelude from Book I of the 48 will give pleasure to some.

I’m an emotional soul and I still feel that playing baroque music too fast interferes with the seriousness that the music deserves. To me great speed goes with words like virtuosity, brilliance and excitement and only at slower tempi do words like feeling, grace and elegance become appropriate. I hope my work will encourage some performers to experiment with slower tempi as I have done.