Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Vibrato Wars: The Left Hand Strikes Back

One of the great things about summer is there's bugger all happening, so a small matter like whether some German orchestral players shook theirs left hands during a performance of Elgar at the Proms the other day becomes a major incident. I was having a conversation with a friend about this, and one of the things that came up was the question of Elgar's own recording of his first symphony, made in the early 1930s. Norrington's argument is that vibrato only came into use then, so that's not relevant. I'll pass over the fact that it shows Elgar knew about vibrato, and was happy for it to be used in a performance under his baton, and instead give you this wonderful recording, from 1903, of Joseph Joachim. He certainly doesn't use vibrato continuously, but equally, he does use it. Not to mention the portamento that's liberally splashed over this Hungarian Dance by Brahms, which was conspicuously absent from the Stuttgart Elgar.

The really silly thing is that on one level Norrington's right: there's a huge amount of received wisdom about performing styles that coats the way we hear old music, and there's a lot to be learned from studying old recordings like the one below that can change our ideas about how to play a piece - the very different way vibrato was used then is well worth thinking about. But what he actually does has no basis in fact, and a questionable effect. He's allowed to play Elgar however he wants, of course - there are no morals in music - but it's just not true to claim that what he's doing is historically accurate, or the only way to perform.

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