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Star-Bulletin Features

Monday, January 8, 2001

‘Right’ tempo
subject to taste

Bullet An Evening in Italy: Repeats 7:30 p.m. tomorrow, Blaisdell Concert Hall, 792-2000; tickets $15-$55.

By Ruth O. Bingham
Special to the Star-Bulletin

TEMPO -- how fast or slow a piece goes -- seems such a simple matter that few listeners pay it much attention. Yet, musicians struggle with it incessantly. Heated arguments center around tempos "too fast" or "too slow." In fact, the tempo chosen reflects as much about the conductor and current styles as about the piece.

Tempo played a prominent role in the Honolulu Symphony's latest concert, "The Italians are Coming!" featuring pianist Marisa Tanzini and guest conductor Giuseppe Cataldo, both from Palermo, Italy.

Tanzini performed Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major, K.595, a well-loved and often performed work, in part because it was Mozart's last piano concerto.

The first movement is marked allegro (cheerful or lively), but the orchestra began closer to a stately adagio (slowly or peacefully). That tempo then shifted the slow second movement from larghetto to a full largo (broadly). Were those choices Cataldo's or Tanzini's?

There is no right or wrong: tempo lies at the core of interpretation. And perhaps yesterday's tempos seemed slow only in comparison to the brisk "performance practice" recordings of the past two decades, recordings that sought to convey the music's original aesthetics.

In fact, Tanzini's entire performance recalled an older standard: She played her part as written, rather than improvising in tutti passages. She remained distinct from the orchestra, rather than engaging in dialogue. She emphasized a singing right-hand melody supported by a muted left-hand accompaniment, rather than balancing the two hands as counterpoint. She used the sustaining pedal more liberally than usual today. And she played within a reserved dynamic range, letting the music speak for itself rather than displaying her emotional involvement.

Tanzini's performance was a reminder of how much the performance practice movement has changed how we hear earlier musics. I found her tempos uncomfortably slow and Mozart's sparkling wit muffled.

Nonetheless, Tanzini is a fine pianist who seemed most relaxed, her playing most coherent, during cadenzas. When playing alone, her tempos often sped up slightly, revealing a subtle tug-of-war between soloist and orchestra that exposed weak points in the orchestra's ensemble. The best ensemble arrived at the end, when the orchestra entered pianissimo after Tanzini's cadenza and built up to the climax.

Cataldo displayed an excellent grasp of Mendelssohn's style and structure in the second half, conducting Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony, No. 4. His homophonic approach in sculpting the orchestra yielded a light, clear touch. Exhilarating moments abounded: the violins' opening theme, the violas' theme and the cellos' and basses' firm "walking bass" in the second movement; the horn choir of the third movement; the scurrying winds and strings of the fourth.

Cataldo's tempos seemed to fit, which raises the conundrum: did an excellent interpretation make his tempos seem right, or did the right tempos make the interpretation seem excellent?

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