January 14, 2012 at 5:40 AMLast 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.
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: http://youtu.be/s1vVlMp2YTA
I won't claim an impeccable ear but I find Joachim's intonation to be excellent.
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."
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.
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.
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?
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.
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! :)
It would be interesting to hear your clips.
I wonder, have you heard recordings of Heifetz playing the two Bruch concertos? How would you describe his performances?
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