I'm not talking about exaggerated rubato and a deliberate Liberace-style soup of genres, but is it acceptable to add some dynamics and some tiny tempo fluctuations when playing Baroque on piano to accentuate phrasing?

How much is too much?

I know that it is hard to draw a line, but I guess there is a limit beyond which it gets frowned upon (even if great pianists sometimes may ignore it altogether).

How else are you supposed to pursue musicality in Baroque repertoire on a piano?

Can anybody point to any examples (from amateurs on Youtube, perhaps?) of good and bad playing in this respect?


The main problem with tempo and dynamic variations in baroque music is that baroque music tends to be polyphonic with independent voices and skewed themes. Volume changes cannot be done independently without having the transparency of the polyphony suffering, and tempo changes in mid-strife tend to hit different themes in the voices in different state of progress.

So the main opportunities for significant changes happen at times of resynchronization, like a non-polyphonic chorded passage after a fermata, or a chant passage. Of course the latter mainly applies to singing.

Random changes in tempo or volume are not "musicality". Musicality arrives from organically dealing with music and expression. In polyphonic music, it's about making the individual voices coherent by tieing them together with consistent articulation and phrasing.

With piano music, it can be excellently hard to give one line running through different fingers and hands a distinctive phrasing and dynamic flow separately from other lines. And to keep a level of similarity of the phrasing and dynamics of various themes as they are taken up by different voices.

That's a lot harder and requires a lot more musicality than imposing some irregularities on basically monorhythmic music.

  • Wow. Welcome to SE and what a great answer. So I take it that you are supposed to concentrate your efforts on making the polyphonic clockwork work well instead of being "expressive", which may eventually stem from that. Am I correct? – Some Dude On The Interwebs Mar 20 '15 at 23:27
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    It's a very good and detailed answer but I do not agree that 'tempo fluctuations' are anything close to the same as 'random changes in tempo'. The former is used all the time in Baroque recordings (at least the ones I listen to), the latter is a sign of disconnected thinking and lack-of-skill. But perhaps you are right in listing it as something to be wary of, because it should come naturally as a part of musicality and be so subtle as to NOT be defined as 'tempo fluctuations', if that's how you meant it. – Darren Ringer Mar 21 '15 at 21:42

It depends whether you are trying to imitate the harpsichord or the clavichord. The harpsichord doesn't have "touch sensitive" dynamics - if a note plays at all it is at its full volume. That is an advantage for polyphonic music, because nothing can "get lost", and you can still bring individual parts using articulation rather than dynamics. For fast playing, the piano can't compete with the harpsichord for the combination of speed and clarity.

The clavichord is a completely different animal. It is just as touch sensitive as the piano, plus you can play vibrato and/or tweak the tuning of individual notes by varying the pressure on the key after it is struck (of course doing that in a controlled manner is a bit more difficult than playing the piano!) The only (big) disadvantage of the clavichord is that it's a very quiet instrument, completely unsuitable for use in a concert hall unless it is amplified, and difficult to record well. Youtube is full of clavichord videos that sound nothing like a clavichord.

Compare these for yourself. The same performer and the same piece, on piano and clavichord. IMO the piano doesn't come close

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