Some Observations on S. Rachmaninoff’s Version of Chopin’s Third Ballade in A-flat major, op. 47
- by Lasse Thoresen
The following is a brief resumé of a major essay, written as part of the Reflective Musician Project at the Norwegian Academy of Music, and awaiting complete publication in “Collected Writings of the Orpheus Institute”.  Many published studies emphasise the importance of analysing musical scores in order for the performer to prepare a high quality musical performance. The present essay is a study of the opposite approach: It shows how musical structure emerges, embodied in sound and time, in a full-fledged interpretation, and as a result reveals metrical functions beyond those traditionally found in a score analysis. While music theory certainly can teach the performer many things, music theory has other points to learn from the musical conception of accomplished performers.
In his interpretation of Chopin’s Third Ballade S. Rachmaninoff deviates from a literal rendering of the score in many instances. Compared to today’s standards of interpretation, his choices are extreme. But then his contemporary A. Schoenberg calls him the pianist builder, the puritan, somebody who never went to extremes, and states his interpretations appeared the same year in and year out. Evidently the pianist-composer Rachmaninoff does not only yield to momentary whims of emotion, but also takes care that the rubati, accelerandi and the additions of dynamics and accents, make sense as form-building elements in an organic whole.
I have pursued his logic of interpretation through selecting a few case studies from his performance. I have insisted on using qualitative rather than quantitative means.
Methods of analysis
In the above-mentioned essay the investigations of Rachmaninoff’s music have been made by using methods that are part of the Aural Sonology Project at the Norwegian Academy of Music. 
They are ordered in five categories: Form-building functions, Types of velocity, Pulse typology, Flux, and Heard Metre. Below these terms will be briefly defined; for more complete definitions the reader is referred to publications mentioned in footnote 2.
‘Metre as heard’ is a new development within the Aural Sonology Project. It is published and discussed for the first time in the present essay.
Meter as heard
Aural musical metre is a regular or quasi-regular hierarchically organised time unit in middle or slow gesture-time. Its most important feature is a real or imagined recurring accent (down-beat) that functions as a metrical determinant. The term ‘imagined’ means that the recurring accent may not be a sonically manifest accent, but one projected by the listener.
The aurally perceived bar will be called an H-bar (‘heard bar’). The H-bar consists of a relatively stable number of shorter pulses (regular or oblique), called H-beats (‘heard beats’). An H-bar of four H-beats will be written: 4-H-bar. The H-bars may be organised into aural hypermeters. The H-meter (‘heard meter’) may or may not coincide with notated meter.
Since H-meter consists in a hierarchical organisation of regular or oblique pulses in three or more strata of velocities (occasionally only in two), change in tempo may alter the H-meter.  The rule is that the H-beats have to be in regular or oblique gesture time, slow or quick; the duration of the H-bar should be in slow gesture time, or at the utmost in quick ambient time; the subdivisions are by preference in ripple-time, mostly regular, sometimes oblique. When changes in tempo causes pulses to pass over from one velocity type to another, the aural perception of the meter may change radically since the H-beats always need to be within the range of gesture-time, and the H-bar itself should remain within the range of (slow) gesture time. 
Functions internal to the H-bar are mainly a product of whether other H-beats are perceived as leading up to the Main Accent (down-beat/thesis); these are then called arsis/upbeat; or if they come in the shadow of the preceding Main Accent, they are called (stasis or after-beat).
Qualitative versus Quantitative analysis
The H-metre provides an ideal structural context for describing rubato-figures in qualitative terms since it constitutes an aural gestalt to which the performer/composer relates when playing the music. In addition, the H-metre is a unit that has a number of structural or syntactic correlates: internally the metrical functions described above; externally as elements in a greater form-building context, particularly for the dynamic form. Instead of measuring the deviations of the metre in chronometric time, the present project depicts them graphically and adds to them a characteristic of Flux. 
Observations on Rachmaninoff’s recorded performance (Phillips 456 943-2) of Chopin’s Third Ballade, op. 47
Example 1 shows an example of a photo exported from the Acousmograph.  At the bottom one sees the analysis of Dynamic Forms.  The vertical lines are exactly aligned with the beats of the H-metre in Rachmaninoff’s performance. Long vertical lines mark the 4-H-bar, and even longer vertical lines mark the 8-H-bar (aural hypermeter). The reader will notice that the distances between the H-beats are unequal. Here the Acousmograph is of help in representing the rubato exactly, because it shows the musical sound as a spectrogram, and so it is easy to see exactly where a beat should be marked. The representation of longer and shorter durations of the beats in quantitative terms (chronometric time) are then transferred to the realm of qualitative, musical meaning (endo-semantics): the variations in length and tempo are given a flux-interpretation on the top of the vertical line, so that the longer gesture-time durations create an impression of arresting the flux of the music, the shorter ones of increasing the flow.
Salient accents (thus generally, accents where the performer seems to place his emphases) are marked with circles placed on the vertical lines representing the H-beats. To the extent these accents have the functions of articulating the Dynamic Forms they are marked above the latter by an indication of accent function.  It should be noted that this analysis integrates and interprets the structural tendencies of harmony, dynamics, and rhythm, and suggests in addition the segmentation into phrases and sentences.
In addition, the total duration of the 4-H-bar is given in two ways: in chronometric time as seconds (at the bottom), reinterpreted as metronome numbers (BPM, at the top); then, in the middle, the durations indicated by a metronome numbers are stated as a note values (here dotted whole-notes). The opening bars are taken as the reference for all tempo alterations in the rest of the piece. The middle line, perhaps more ornamental than functional, shows a reduced physical imprint of the performers dynamics.