Have you considered there might be a different way of playing rhythmically depending on the style period? I’m not talking about rhythmic conventions (such as double dotting, rhythmic assimilation, etc.), but how we organise the relationships between long and short notes, where we might take time, and where to do so would disturb the music.
Leon Fleisher explains this beautifully using the famous theme from the 18th Variation from Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody. He plays it in two ways – one Romantic (the way this piece should of course be done), and the other Classical (to illustrate his point).
This sort of rhythmic articulation and shaping is a million miles away from the tyranny of the metronomic beat. As I have discussed before, too much metronome practice will tend to kill natural rhythm – but as I eavesdrop in institutional practice room corridors I am struck by how many pianists are using it as the backbone of their daily practice. While there are some effective ways of using this tool, coinciding each beat of the music to a metronome click is a very good way of filling in practice time without necessarily achieving anything helpful at all.
We’ve all experienced how occasional, focussed metronome practice can help stabilise a wayward pulse by drawing attention to those places where we might be rushing or dawdling, but we have to be very careful about this or we risk ending up flattening out the natural ebb and flow of the music until we sound like a robot.
Consider the opening of Schubert’s first Moment Musical in C, op 94 no 1.
Marked Moderato, this looks like it should be played pretty much in time, right? I sampled 5 random elite recordings from YouTube, and found that not one was in synch with a metronomic beat for more than one bar. It will come as no surprise that each player had his own different basic tempo, but you may be surprised by the amount of leeway there is in performances that all sound rhythmically correct, and not at all wobbly or wayward.
In all these performances there is a tendency to linger over the long E in bar 2, and to push forwards in the phrase with all the quaver movement (from bar 5), stretching out the fp dotted crotchet in bar 7. You can check this out for yourself; here are the pianists I listened to: Alfred Brendel, Wilhelm Backhaus, Daniel Barenboim, Sviatoslav Richter, Artur Schnabel.
Think about it for a minute. If the metronome is something you use routinely in your practice, something that you would feel lost without, ask yourself what possible benefit synchronising the opening of this Schubert piece with the beating of metronome is going to hold for you. The likely outcome is that all the natural, subtle timings inherent in the music are going to be levelled out.
There is a vast – and often unappreciated – difference between playing in time and playing rhythmically. As long as you realise that a living performance by a human being is not going to be metronomic then go ahead and use the metronome, discerningly. But do not be dismayed if your eventual performance does not fit with the metronome – there would be something seriously wrong if it did.