Hey! Not so fast…

There are certain contexts in which a stringendo can work.  Most often the composer will explicitly indicate one (which, if I may be perfectly frank, is no guarantee that it will work: I’m unconvinced that the stringendi indicated by Max Reger in some of his organ pieces are well-advised.  Listeners who don’t know it’s a mandate from the composer invariably complain “you’re rushing!”).  There are a few other contexts.  But these contexts are not in the majority. 

In a piece which treats rhythm and meter more or less traditionally, rushing just sounds like, well, rushing.  Of course, there’s nothing wrong with fast tempi themselves, but as far as expressive temporal manipulation is concerned, rubato, agogic, tenuto and ritenuto are the rule.  Stringendo should be the rare exception.  Virtuosity is not demonstrated by speed alone, but by conveying the sense that you, the performer, are in control.  And nothing belies a lack of control like rushing.

But demonstrating virtuosity isn’t the only reason for employing a deliberate approach to temporal manipulation.  The harmonic, contrapuntal and architectural logic of a piece can (and should) be highlighted with judicious application of rubato, tenuto, etc.  Stringendo doesn’t set one moment apart the way those other devices do.  To me, stringendo almost always feels as if the performer is inexorably careening toward a technical train-wreck and is really only along for the ride.

So why do I frequently encounter musicians who seem to argue just the opposite, i. e., that rubato etc. are to be used sparingly, and what amounts to rushing is the one thing that can insure against a boring performance?  Perhaps they don’t miss the way tenuto et al. can bring the logic mentioned above into sharp relief because they aren’t perceiving that logic in the first place. 

Well, anyway, I’ve got might on my side.  David Higgs, Jacques van Oortmerssen, Andras Schiff, Alfred Brendel – all proponents of riding the “back edge” rather than the “front edge” of the beat.  Higgs, a luminary in the world of organ performance, likes to make an analogy to driving a horse-drawn coach: you have to keep the reins taut.  That tension is what generates excitement, propels the piece forward and makes a compelling experience for the listener.  If the reins aren’t taut it’s because you’ve lost your grip and the horses are getting away from you.


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