Ideas & Issues

How Slow Can You Go?

What happens when musicians slow the music way down? i i

What happens when musicians slow the music way down? iStockphoto.com hide caption

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What happens when musicians slow the music way down?

What happens when musicians slow the music way down?

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These are the dog days of summer. It's dry. The sun is hot. Vacations are lingering. All good reasons to slow it down a notch. Time to leaf through that slow-food cookbook for a good recipe. Time slow down the music too — to channel your inner adagio molto.

But how slow is too slow? Tempos are crucial in classical music. Play Chopin's funeral march too fast and it sounds like you're at a fiesta; conduct the famous Allegretto from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony too slowly and it can collapse under its own weight.

Below are examples of musicians who take the idea of slow to new and fascinating extremes. Have a few favorites in the "how slow can you go" department? One of ours is conductor Sergiu Celibidache, who late in life embraced his inner snail. Let us know yours — but don't rush — in the comments section.

How Slow can You Go?

  • Mahler: Adagietto

    This performance of Mahler's beautiful Adagietto (from his 5th Symphony) is nothing shy of glacial. A "normal" performance lasts roughly 10 minutes. This rendition, recorded live in 1964 with the Philadelphia Orchestra, clocks in at 15 and stretches over two YouTube clips. The man behind the lethargic beat is German conductor Hermann Scherchen. Unfortunately, the music sags and drags and finally just caves in. For comparison, try this version conducted by Simon Rattle.

  • Strauss: 'Im Abendrot'

    Soprano Jessye Norman's recording of Richard Strauss' Four Last Songs is justly famed for both its deliberately slow-moving tempos and its radiant beauty. In this case, even though the pacing might be described as ponderous (especially compared to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's famous recording), Norman and conductor Kurt Masur preserve the structure of the music — and Strauss' autumnal glow gains in warmth and depth of feeling.

  • Brahms: Intermezzo in A, Op. 118, No. 2

    On first hearing this painfully slow recording of Brahms' beloved Intermezzo in A (Op. 118, No. 2) I thought it was just plain wrong. Why would pianist Ivo Pogorelich want to stretch out like taffy Brahms' gently rocking rhythms and lovely rolled chords? But after a few listens, I found myself warming to the drowsy pulse. The music is strong enough to withstand the extremely slow pace. As a result, the piece becomes even more intimate, as if Pogorelich was whispering it to me alone. It will not be to everyone's taste for sure. Porgorelich takes 8:49 to play it, compared to this version by Nikolai Lugansky, a more straightforward 5:09.

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