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Cristian Gruber

There is more to life than vibrato

January 14, 2012 at 5:40 AM

Last night as I was studying, I came across a recording of Joseph Joachim playing Brahms Hungarian Dance No.1 on Youtube. Absolutely stunning performance, even though the recording was old, Joachim's perfect musicality still managed to transcended the recording's technological imperfections.

I remembered reading somewhere (I think it was Bachmann's Encyclopaedia of the Violin), that Joachim and violinists of his generation didn't use vibrato, or that if they did, it was used very sparingly. After hearing this recording, I realized that this was in fact the case, much to my surprise, Joachim used vibrato at most 4-5 times, whereas any modern violinist would have used it 90-1000 times! Also to my surprise, it sounded unbelievably expressive and musical.

As modern violinists we are taught that vibrato is the hallmark of expressive, passionate playing, and that without it music is dry and boring. Clearly, whoever told me that never listened to Joachim play (nor Auer for that matter). I actually remember that in his "Violin Playing as I Teach It" Auer devotes about half a chapter to rant against the use of excessive vibrato. Before last night, I thought that this was an old fashioned view, and that in our modern era, music making was less, pardon my expression, "uptight". However, after hearing Joachim play, I decided that maybe I was wrong, maybe there was something more meaningful in life than vibrato.

I decided that I would test my theory the next day, see if I was right, and if one can actually play gorgeous music without the need for vibrato on every single note. So I did. I got to the University, entered the practice room, and decided that the Bruch 2nd mvt. would be my guinea pig. I began on the sustained G note, careful not to let my instincts get the best of me. At first it was tedious, it sounded like drinking mineral water instead of delicious Orange Cream Soda, but then I realized how, actually, there was much more room for expression.

I began to see the piece more clearly than I ever have before, and I began to notice things about my playing (mainly my intonation, tone and phrasing) that I had never even heard. In perticular, I began to notice nuances in the composition itself more clearly, and quickly realized that my phrasing, in fact my whole interpretation of the piece was going against that grain of its ultimate "intention" if you will. I stopped and asked myself (silently): "Could it be that my entire stylistic approach to music is centered on vibrato, rather than clear phrasing? Could it really be that vibrato doesn't make the music more musical, contrary to popular belief?"

I started the Bruch once more without vibrato, and I felt as if I finally understood that movement, and that I could finally play it as it was intended. I gave more thought to my bow, not just for dynamics, but for color and texture, it was like stepping into a completely different dimension as far as violin playing is concerned, and it felt strangely liberating to put my vibrato on the sidelines and concentrate on the real music. In that moment, it dawned on me that all my life, I have had an impression about violinistical interpretation that was wrong: you don't need to overemphasize anything (with vibrato) to make it beautiful, because the beauty is already there, what a musician needs to do is to bring that beauty out through their nuance and phrasing, not through an endless handshake!

Now that doesn't mean that I'm done with vibrato forever, merely that I finally understand that it is only the cream on the cake, and if you have a cake made mainly of cream, well it would be only cream, not a cake! I now feel that maybe in our modern conception of music, we have lost sight of what is really important in music: the music itself. Many violinists today that I hear (both students and seasoned professionals) put their vibrato at the foundation of their playing, as if to say to the audience "Look how passionately I can play" but really, vibrato does not equate to passion, because passion is within the player and within the music. Passionate playing merely involves taking that passion, and, with alot of controll and sensitivity, making it obvious to the audience.

From Roy Sonne
Posted on January 14, 2012 at 1:11 PM
Right on! Bravo! I struggled for years, in much the same way as you, until I realized that beautiful and expressive tone comes primarily from the bow and only secondarily from the vibrato.
From Kevin Keating
Posted on January 14, 2012 at 7:44 PM
Yeah, vibrato is an ornamentation and should be treated as such. When you don't hear it so often, it will be much more welcome and enjoyable when you do hear it. Baroque composers used it very little and only as an ornament.
From John Soloninka
Posted on January 14, 2012 at 9:40 PM
We had a chamber masterclass with Moshe Hammer (violinist, student of Heifez among others) on the Schubert Trout Quintet. There a was a section where he was commenting on tone and phrasing...and said...for experimental purposes, use not vibrato whatsoever...but pay very close attention for phrasing with the bow only. He demonstrated, and frankly, he could get more compelling phrasing with his bow alone, that I could using bow, vibrato, bribery and prayer combined! =) Vibrato is not a bad thing at all...but i think it causes many of us to use it as an expressive crutch...forgetting other tools.
From John Soloninka
Posted on January 14, 2012 at 9:45 PM
Can't say I can draw much from listening to the Joachim recording though. Not to my taste...sounds boring, out of tune (as many soloists were then) and kitschy. I blame most of this on the inadequacy of the recording techniques and time pressures...but still.
From Cristian Gruber
Posted on January 14, 2012 at 10:48 PM
That's what I never understood until now! The fact that bow controll is such a powerfull tool for interpretation. The amount of colors and nuances you can get are unbelievable.

I agree the Joachim recording is a little harsh. But then again Joachim was the first violinist to ever be recorded, and I think he has a good musical sense. You kind of have to listen through the bad quality of the recording (like looking at someone through a thin drape I guess). There is also a recording of Auer playing the Melodie by Tchaikowsky, its a little better and he uses more ornamentation, but still you can hear the simplicity of the music iself:

From Corwin Slack
Posted on January 14, 2012 at 11:28 PM
They didn't need vibrato because they had tone. They knew how to draw the bow without pressing to get a rich and gorgeous sound, When I was young I read all about Fritz Kreislers' vibrato. I didn't have access to his recordings. When I finally heard his playing I didn't hear his vibrato first but he voluptuous right arm. The vibrato (yes he vibrates) is quite narrow, fast and chaste. No wahh-wahh seasickness at all.
From Corwin Slack
Posted on January 14, 2012 at 11:42 PM
John what is out of tune about it? Several years ago a book was written about temperament and intonation. The author analyzed Joachim recordings with electronic sampling programs and demonstrated that Joachim played very well in tune using a temperament called just intonation. The author fingered Casals as the proponent of modern string intonation that uses sharp leading tones.

I won't claim an impeccable ear but I find Joachim's intonation to be excellent.

From Scott Cole
Posted on January 15, 2012 at 12:23 AM
As usual, I'll present the opposing viewpoint:

For one thing, one must be careful on translating the philosophies of 19th century players into the present. One good example is Spohr and the other conservative Teutonics who considered spicatto a corruption of violin-playing.

Why do we play with continuous vibrato? We partially thank Heifetz, whose intense and continuous vibrato not only changed the way we hear the fiddle, but rendered the sound of many great violinists like Elman suddenly obsolete. Kreisler was right: everyone might have well broken their fiddles over their collective knees. One could consider the introduction of color film: the world suddenly stopped seeing its images solely in black and white, a mode of visualization that spoke to the past.

Leaving aside the expressive capabilities of vibrato, the main practical benefit is acoustic: in a large hall, one can simply play louder and project to a much greater degree. Just simply try playing a note with maximum sound without vibrating: the sound cracks at a much lower level of pressure. Although I don't know why, vibrato prevents the sound from cracking. It's the same principal that opera singers use: vibrate and you project. The wider you vibrate, the louder you can play. However, when you don't vibrate--it just sounds like you're yelling. And the same happens on a string instrument.

So you can get away with using very little or no vibrato in the your carpeted bedroom as you play softly. But try to soar above an orchestra or cut through a piano quartet and you'll get buried.

Keep in mind that playing into a microphone, especially in the past when you would to have played right into a large horn-shaped thing, would probably have necessitated less of the projecting vibrato of the concert stage.

I tell my students "vibrato is not the icing on the cake. It IS the cake."

From Cristian Gruber
Posted on January 15, 2012 at 2:31 AM
Scott, I don't think that is true. When I played the Bruch without vibrato, I played all the dynamics, from the softest to the loudest sounds and rhinsforzandos, and it didn't screetch or sound like "yelling". In fact, it actually sounded more Baroque than anything else.

I agree with you on the issue that vibrato helps you project. But the problem facing many violinist these days is getting softer. In a good hall, (even in our University recital hall) its actually unbelievably hard to play softly well, because everything sounds loud no matter what you do. I've heard people playing over the fingerboard in that hall sound at about at least a mezzo piano, when the effect should have been at least a piano, or a flautando for that matter.

From Nicole Stacy
Posted on January 15, 2012 at 3:56 AM
Yes, you can't rely on it for a crutch. I am skeptical of the continuous vibrato school, although it has its place. If you *don't* need to soar over an orchestra -- for instance, if you're playing in a place like my school's small recital hall where the acoustics are very warm and forgiving -- you have more room to play around. My issue with the way a lot of students with any soloistic potential seem to be taught to sound today (at the risk of overgeneralizing) is that the sound is sort of dense and monotonous, really not much variation in color; the wispier, breathier sounds that can grab your heart and tear it out of your chest in the right place aren't explored much -- and I think the constant vibrating is part of it.
From tammuz kolenyo
Posted on January 15, 2012 at 5:06 AM
there is a slight odd moral element underlying some of these assumptions.
if someone can play beautifully with little vibrato and so with a corresponding style of playing, then thats enough. and if someone plays beautifully with a style compatible with lots of beautifully nuanced vibrato, then that too is enough.
From Emily Grossman
Posted on January 15, 2012 at 8:06 AM
I was in awe of his just intonation. You don't hear that as much these days on a piece like that. It seems so well grounded, just like his lack of vibrato. He uses only his bow to pull out his rabbit--no smoke or mirrors to hide any tricks.
From marjory lange
Posted on January 15, 2012 at 7:54 PM
Great analogy, Scott: "I tell my students "'vibrato is not the icing on the cake. It IS the cake'."

Of course, cake isn't particularly nutritious, so anyone depending on it for healthy sustenance would suffer; same seems true for musical 'health' and too much vibrato-dependence.

From Peter Charles
Posted on January 16, 2012 at 8:44 AM
I'm afraid that I too, just like Scott, have to put the cat amongst the pigeons.

I found the playing on that clip to be very boring and uninspiring, and yes, out of tune too. It seemed to me to be crying out for some expressive vibrato. The sound was very subdued and overpowered by the piano. It must have been an accoustic recording where they play into a large horn.

Thanks heavens for Kreisler, Heifetz, Milstein et al, who came along and put expressive passion and good intonation into music making.

I also heard a clip of Aeur playing recently and although slightly better it was still pretty dire.

And have we not ALL been aware of vibrato as a perfume to colour the sound since Menuhin's description way back in the 1960's?

From Peter Charles
Posted on January 16, 2012 at 3:32 PM
Cristian Gruber

Whilst I respect your comments regarding an expressive bow and I totally agree that we do tend to not often make the best use of the bow, I have a problem with your statement that the Bruch concerto sounded Baroque when you played it without vibrato (or even using not much vibrato).

Do you really want the Bruch, a passionate meaty concerto, to sound like a Baroque piece? If you do, that's fine, but I want 19th C concertos to sound like they have blood and meat, and not like some whimsical and thin Baroque piece. I sppose it's really a matter of personal preference, but I like a big sound and a lot of passion in the (I take it you mean the G minor) Bruch concerto.

From Cristian Gruber
Posted on January 17, 2012 at 12:33 AM
Yes, I do mean the G-minor, but perhaps I overspoke when I said that it sounded too "Baroque". I was actually referring to that fact that the non vibrato sound sounds more like the baroque style (since they didn't use vibrato), than "screetching and yelling" in response to Scott's comment. I'm not saying it actually sounded baroque, only baroqueish-if that makes any sense :)
And as for the vibrato, I do use it. It's just that I have come to the conclusion that it is not at the core of our passionate playing.
From William Wolcott
Posted on January 17, 2012 at 4:30 AM
There was plenty of vibrato by Joachim in this piece. I raised the pitch a semitone to what it should be, eq-ed the sound, then slowed it down and very easily heard vibrato on nearly every note. Double stops had rigid vibrato but still there and first finger vibrato was slightly rigid as well, but still quite audible. The oscillation may not have been very wide, but was still there. It's undeniable.

And I listened to Sarasate as well doing the same thing...not only great continuous vibrato, much more than Joachim (Sarasate had much better technique) but very clean playing with excellent intonation. In my opinion, he was the best of the lot, recording wise, from that era. Everyone seems to be in love with Ysaye's playing, but to me Sarasate is worlds better. Maybe I'm lucky to have amazing speakers or something, I don't know.

Saying who is better is subjective...but hearing vibrato is not...but somehow, it must be...

Do you really believe that, in the height of the Romantic Era, that these great players didn't use vibrato?! I'm sorry, but that's laughable to me. How did they do glissando? Did they just 'slide' down the string? haha Did Paganini, who composed in an operatic style, play with little to no vibrato? ha NO WAY...

If I have time, I'll post clips, as cleanly as I am able.

Be well, all! :)

From Peter Charles
Posted on January 17, 2012 at 9:31 AM
Good post William. We know of course (or at least you and I know) that vibrato was used in the 19C and early 20C and that even orchestras used vibrato too. There is a certain English conductor who will remain nameless (Mr R Norrington) who insists on re-writing history by claiming that Mahler would never have heard vibrato used in his symphonies. What rubbish!!

It would be interesting to hear your clips.

From Peter Charles
Posted on January 17, 2012 at 7:38 PM

I wonder, have you heard recordings of Heifetz playing the two Bruch concertos? How would you describe his performances?

From Cristian Gruber
Posted on January 19, 2012 at 8:36 PM
I'm sorry, I heard Heifetz play a million times, and it is his control of the instrument, and of his sound, that makes his recordings unique and "better" than everyone else. The same goes for Milstein, Kreisler and Auer. Anyone can shake their finger, but not everyone can have good tone, and good expression. I mean, ask yourselves this: How do pianists play expressively without excessive vibrato? Through phrasing. I realize that as violinists, we have a tremendous ace beneath our sleeves with our vibrato, but I feel like many people (your comments being case and point), emphazisize it's use as the best was to play expressively, not as a way to aid in phrasing and musicianship. As for Paganini, frankly we will never know if he did/didn't use vibrato because we have no period performances. Frankly I don't think he needed it, and his music is written in such a way that it can be played without vibrato and still sound smashing. All I can say is that there is a certain quality to less-vibrated playing that is more true to the music than otherwise. But that is just my opinion.

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