Velocity and Virtuosity: An Empirical Investigation of Basic Tempo in Contemporary Performances of Two Large-scale Works of Chopin and Liszt




music performance, performance analysis, virtuosity, virtuoso, piano performance, tempo, pianist


Past research suggests that exceptional speed is a salient feature in virtuoso performance. However, this claim has not yet been tested by empirical studies. This article sets out to investigate in what ways contemporary piano virtuosos play fast in their performances and how they manifest the concept of virtuosity through tempo. It achieves these goals by analyzing a set of recordings of Chopin's First Ballade and Liszt's Sonata with a view to examining the tendency of basic tempo in the performances of two pianists who are most often considered as virtuosos of our time by music critics of English-speaking countries – Kissin and Lisitsa. The results show that they do not always play faster than other selected pianists do. Rather, they tend to play with extreme tempo at the sectional level – playing exceptionally fast in fast sections and exceptionally slow in slow ones. Their performances create dramatic contrast in expression between fast and slow sections, manifesting the concept of virtuosity in both the broader sense – dazzling the audience through broadened expressive power – as well as the narrower sense – displaying of exceptional technical skills through speed, agility and accuracy. The findings provide new, albeit preliminary, insight into the performance practice of modern piano virtuosos and how performers may manifest the concept of virtuosity in their performances.