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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Impressive Experiment with Tuning, August 31, 2011
Giordano Bruno (Here, There, and Everywhere) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Six Degrees of Tonality (Audio CD)
From roughly 1600 to 1900, keyboard instruments were as diverse as beetles. Composers, keyboard players, and instrument builders experimented ceaselessly with strings, plectra, shapes and sizes, and above all with "temperament" -- (From wikipedia - "What temperament is: In JUST intonation, every interval between two pitches corresponds to a whole number ratio between their frequencies. For instance, 660 Hz / 440 Hz constitutes a fifth, and 880 Hz / 440 Hz an octave. Such intervals have a stability, or purity to their sound, when played simultaneously (assuming they are played using timbres with harmonic partials). If one of those pitches is adjusted slightly to deviate from the just interval, a trained ear can detect this change by the presence of beats, which are explained below.") Given that the formative training of most musicians was then in vocal music, nobody was entirely satisfied with the inflexible nature of keyboard tuning. Singers, wind players, string players were all accustomed to tuning 'on the wing', by ear, to the mode of the composition and to the chords as they were heard. Frescobaldi was particularly noted in his time for his efforts to construct a keyboard with 'split' keys, that is, separate keys for adjacent notes like A-sharp and B-flat. Those notes would sound the same frequencies on a standard 12-step keyboard, but would and should be distinguished in the most sonorous horizontal progression of intervals called a melody. The problem was more evident and more consequential in harmonic theory, especially in late Renaissance, baroque, and early Classical compositions that relied on sharp distinctions between 'consonance' and dissonance.'

In a nutshell, no system of fixed tuning of the twelve steps of an octave can produce 'just' intervals throughout. The earliest theorists of tuning sought to emphasize perfect Pythagorean fifths, at the cost of quite uneasy thirds. Mutatis mutandis, from the 15th C onwards, the maximum effort was given to tuning by thirds, though mathematically some thirds would need to be favored over others. Keyboards were tuned, almost universally, to what we now designate as 1/4 comma meantone. The organs of JS Bach's lifetime, for instance, were dependably 1/4 comma meantone, however much they varied in pitch, A395 to A466. As Bach and his peers and successors became more conscious of the 'affective' possibilities of various keys, as well as obsessed with modulation from key to key, 1/4 comma meantone began to seem inadequate. Bach himself probably preferred a more 'ad hoc' 1/6 comma meantone, with deliberate irregularities. That was what he considered "well-tempered", and what he composed his "Well-Tempered Klavier" books to demonstrate. That Bach had what we now call "equal temperament" in mind is pure bosh; the idea of "equal temperament" was familiar to Bach's generation but widely disregarded. Without modern electronic tuning technology, it would have been unachievable anyway; good keyboardists tuned for themselves, with their own ears, to their own taste.

Around 1920, with technical advances in tuning equipment, "equal temperament" finally became practical, and piano makers leaped at its convenience. Let's tell it like it is: the equality of "equal temperament" is that all notes are similarly out of tune, and all keys sound somewhat dissonant. All steps are tempered exactly 13.7 'cents' wrong, a divergence from "just" tuning that only the finest ears could notice and that doesn't sour 'horizontal' intervals. However, it does spoil the consonant 'resolution' of basic triadic chords, and therefore dissipates the affective color of dissonances, suspensions, leading tones, etc. Modern ears, according to Enid Katahn and others, have become accustomed to an ever-present mild dissonance in keyboard harmony, never hearing either a harsh "wolf" third, or a pure third either.

On this CD, Enid Katahn has recorded seven extremely familiar works for keyboard, performing each on a "well-tempered" rather than an "equal-tempered" piano. She's chosen, I think, the temperament that most likely would have been the choice of the composer (or the composer's tuner), though in fact each composer would have been acquainted with more than one possibility:

D. Scarlatti: Sonata in D, K. 96 -- 1/4 comma meantone
(In this temperament, all thirds would be 'just' except B-D#, F#-A#, C#-F, and Ab-C, which would be 41 cents wolfish.)

Mozart: Fantasie in D minor Kv 385g -- Prelleur Temperament
(ALL intervals detuned from pure, 8-19.5 cents, with the dissonace distributed to favor the commonest keys and color the remote keys "expressively".)

Haydn: Sonata in Eb XVI/49 -- Kirnberger II Temperament
(same concept as the Prelleur, but with detunings from 0 (C-E) to 21 cents (F#-A#), making the keys close to C far more distinct from the remote keys, in which the thirds will be edgy indeed but the fifths almost pure. An odd recrudescence of Pythagorean tuning by default. This tuning was widespread in Haydn's time, and is often used by harpsichordists today.)

Beethoven: Sonata in Ab, Op. 110 -- Thomas Young Temperament, derived from the widely used Valotti Temperament
(Evenly progressive and consistent in its detuning of steps, from 5 cents for C-E to 21 cents for F#-A#. Regarded in Beethoven's era as "highly refined".

Chopin: Fantasie-Impromptu -- DeMorgan Temperament
(A deliberately a-historical and 'provocative' choice for this music! The DeMorgan Temperament reverses the normal arrangement of adjustments so that the remote keys enjoy the best harmony and the common keys are unsettling. The pattern is a symmetrical hourglass: F-A is detuned by 17 cents, while B-D# is detuned only 10 cents.)

Grieg: Glochengelaute -- Coleman 11 Temperament
(A modern computer-programmed variation on the Young/Valotti system; designed to yield smooth changes between keys and a mild. consistent tonal palette. The detunings range from 7 cents C-E to 18 cents for B-D#, F#-A#, and Db-F)

And, to drive home the point:
Mozart: Fantasie in D minor -- played three times, in three different temperaments
1) 1/4 comma meantone, 2) Prelleur, 3) Equal

Interesting? I sincerely hope so!
But if you really want to hear a miracle, after you've grasped some of the meaning of 'Temperament' in music, here's a recommendation, the finest performance I know of Beethoven's last three piano sonatas, Op. 109, 110, 111, played by Penelope Crawford on a fortepiano tuned to the temperament Bach prescribed for his "Well-tempered Klavier":
Beethoven's Last Piano Sonatas

I encountered Penelope Crawford's Beethoven CD at the Boston Festival this year (2011). Here's the text of a e-mail she sent me, in response to an inquiry about the marvelously different temperament I could hear on her CD:

Dear X,
I'm glad you like the Beethoven. You have sharp ears on the tuning issue! I use Bradley Lehman's "Bach" tuning (deciphered from Bach's diagram on the title page of the WTC) for just about everything these days, as it offers both key color and the possibility of playing in all keys. You can read about it on his web site.
All best,
Penny Crawford

The Bradley Lehman site is extremely interesting.
I also recommend:
How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care)
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A scintillating aural treat, February 13, 2010
Cap'n Bob (Oakland, CA, USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Six Degrees of Tonality (Audio CD)
It's wonderful that this delightful stroll into music history is available again. I thoroughly enjoyed its first production a few years ago, and each repeated audition adds to my appreciation of Edward Foote's experience and talent in piano tuning. The most revealing tracks are three treatments of a Mozart Fantasia recorded successively in quarter-comma meantone, Prelleur well temperament, and equal temperament. After the soaring notes of the Prelleur version, equal temperament sounds like a blanket has been thrown over the piano, dampening Mozart's brilliance into soporific mediocrity. Meantone is as expressive as the Prelleur except for several jarringly discordant "wolf" chords. I heartily recommend this CD both as an educational tool and as a record of exquisite piano works played as their composers intended.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Project, November 20, 2012
A Fan (Painted Post, NY United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Six Degrees of Tonality (Audio CD)
I enjoyed listening to and studying the music. It is a real challenge to figure out the differences in the tuning. I have to admit that while it was fun I could not consistently detect the differences between the various temperaments.
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Six Degrees of Tonality
Six Degrees of Tonality by Mozart (Audio CD - 2009)
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