I have been listening to various recordings of Mozart’s K488 piano concerto made by pianists in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. In all of them, as if by some strange consensus, the slow movement is taken very slowly. It seems to have been a fashion back then to treat Mozart Adagios as very slow.
As I listen, I don’t just think, ‘this is slow’. I think, ‘this is *too* slow’. It’s as if some delicate balance has been upset. I feel as if someone has their foot on the brakes all the time instead of driving happily along.
What determines one’s feeling about tempo? Is it to do with one’s physique – how lightly or heavily one’s hand lies on the piano keys, how easily one moves around the instrument? Physical weight or stiffness could certainly make one feel that a speed is too fast, or too slow.
But my judgement about tempo seems to be independent of whether I’m playing or not. My sense of the right tempo is determined by something else – by some kind of relationship between the musical material and the speed it’s being played at.
I remember György Sebök saying that if the tempo is too slow for the musical content, the music will feel like a piece of chewing gum being stretched too thinly and losing its ideal texture.
If the tempo is too fast for the content, it can feel as if notes are being stuffed into your mouth like handfuls of peanuts you don’t have time to chew. (That’s my analogy, not Sebök’s.)
Yet although people have strong personal reactions to tempo, reactions vary from person to person. You probably won’t get everyone in the audience agreeing that something was too fast or slow.
All of which reminds me that the Italian word tempo is also the word for the weather.
Whatever the weather, some will feel comfortable while others long for it to be warmer – or cooler. So perhaps one’s response to tempo (or weather) is to do with one’s heartbeat, temperature and breathing patterns.