Sunday, November 29

Vibrato Wars

Music by late Romantic composers such as Richard Wagner and Johannes Brahms is now played with a fairly continuous vibrato. However, some musicians specialising in historically informed performances such as the conductor Roger Norrington argue that it is unlikely that Brahms, Wagner, and their contemporaries, would have expected it to be played in this way. This view has caused considerable controversy, although Arnold Schoenberg, a considerably later composer, seems to have disliked vibrato as well, likening it to the bleating of a goat. The view that continuous vibrato was invented by Fritz Kreisler and some of his colleagues is held to be shown by the development of sound recordings which allegedly proves that vibrato appeared only in the 20th century. Against this are cited sources which are said to unanimously prove[citation needed] that Viennese early 19th century string players like Franz Clement and Joseph Mayseder were noted for their tasteful use of vibrato. These musicians (and the two Hellmesbergers) are said to represent the school on which Fritz Kreisler actually based his stylistic approach.
The alleged growth of vibrato in 20th century orchestral playing has been traced by Norrington by studying early recordings; critics say his interpretations are not supported by the actual samples. Norrington claims that vibrato in the earliest recordings is used only selectively, as an expressive device; the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra were not recorded using vibrato comparable to modern vibrato until 1935, and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra not until 1940. French orchestras seem[citation needed]to have played with continuous vibrato somewhat earlier, from the 1920s. Defenders of vibrato object that the sonic limitations of older recordings, particularly with respect to overtones and high frequency information, make an uncontroversial assessment of earlier playing techniques very difficult. In addition, they point out a distinction needs to be made between the kind of vibrato used by a solo player, and the sectional vibrato of an entire string ensemble, which can't be heard as a uniform quantity as such. Rather, it manifests itself in terms of the warmth and amplitude of the sound produced, as opposed to a perceptible wavering of pitch. The fact that as early as the 1880s composers such as Richard Strauss (in his tone poems "Don Juan" and "Death and Transfiguration") as well as Camille Saint-Saëns (Symphony No. 3 "Organ") asked string players to perform certain passages "without expression" or "without nuance" strongly suggests the general use of vibrato within the orchestra as a matter of course. Although there is also a convincing argument to be made that since 'nuance' and 'expression' were affected using many other devices as well as vibrato, Strauss and Saint-Saëns could easily have been referring to any number of expressive devices that formed part of the late romantic palette.
Despite this, the use of indiscriminate vibrato in late Romantic music is still common, though challenged by Roger Norrington and others of the historically informed performance movement. Performances of composers from Beethoven to Arnold Schoenberg with limited vibrato are now not uncommon. Norrington caused controversy during the 2008 Proms season by conducting Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations, and the Last Night of the Proms, in non-vibrato style, which he calls pure tone. Some take the view that even though it may not be what the composer envisioned, vibrato adds an emotional depth which improves the sound of the music. Others feel that the leaner sound of vibratoless playing is preferable. In 20th century classical music, written at a time when the use of vibrato was widespread, there is sometimes a specific instruction not to use it (in some of the string quartets of Béla Bartók for example). Furthermore, some modern classical composers, especially minimalist composers, are against the use of vibrato at all times. In the 21st century some orchestras are now playing with noticeably less vibrato.

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