starBeethoven's 5th Variations

Hearing Ron Leonard's excerpt CD again the other day has led me to ponder again the opening theme of the 2nd movement. Leonard claims the actual rhythm is somewhere between a sixteenth and a triplet. His demonstration is not entirely a satisfactory answer, but it is true that played as a strict dotted eighth/sixteenth it seems to sound a little too 'jaunty' to keep the flowing character. Have any of you found a satisfactory resolution?

What about tempo? Does any conductor (aside the 'authentic' specialists) take it at Beethoven's marking? I hear it usually played either slow or slower, though I find Furtwangler's compelling nonetheless.


Jon Pegis replies: I'm going to disagree with Ron Leonard on this one. Every teacher and coach I've had said that the rhythm in this excerpt must be exact and precise. The real challenge is to play a legato dotted rhythm -- something that is very difficult to do since your hands cannot influence each other. If the right hand is dominant the tone will be smoother but the dreaded triplets may appear. And if the left hand is too dominant the rhythm will be precise but the line of the phrase gets chopped up. As for tempo, I think it's best to play the theme and variations at the same speed even though a lot of conductors don't do this. I've played this passage anywhere from 84-92. The faster tempo makes it easier to avoid running out of bow, but you don't want the theme to sound rushed. I hope this helps a little--I'm sure you'll get a lot of opinions on this one!

Ryan Selberg replies: I'm going to agree with Jon on this one. There is a very compelling reason that it appears on virtually every orchestral cello audition, primarily for the reasons Jon stated. The few candidates who are able to play with a clear rhythm AND a beautiful legato AND dynamics really stand out quickly as someone to consider for the job (assuming the rest of the audition doesn't fall apart).

David Sanders replies: I've wondered about the tempo of this for years at auditions. I've had colleagues tell me that they vote no if the first variation isn't the same tempo as the theme, but every time we've played it, the first variation is almost always faster than the theme. So what's the answer? I would say to stay pretty much in the same tempo, but to make it more flowing, which would probably translate into somewhat, but not a lot, faster.

Gary Stucka replies: Personally, I vote NO on a candidate who doesn't keep a strict tempo between the theme and subsequent variations. David's probably right about concert realities, ESPECIALLY with the current crop of the overly self-indulgent and un-disciplined maestri at the helm, but I need a barometer of some sort at auditions to try to tell if a candidate is a potential "rusher" or not.

Also, as has been stated earlier, the excerpt CAN be played smoothly, beautifully, and musically, while maintaining the printed rhythm. Anything less is, in a word, unacceptable.

zambocello replies: Ditto from me: For auditions play accurate dotted rhythm, legato, soft, in tune, and consistent tempo. In concerts, play with the section. (And in concerts if you have to choose between playing with the conductor and playing with the section, play with the section.)

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