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CLASSICAL  August 2008

CLASSICAL August 2008

Subject:

Elgar and Vibrato

From:

Roger Hecht <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 15 Aug 2008 12:58:22 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Parts/Attachments

text/plain (175 lines)

I reviewed Norrington's Elgar First with Stuttgart some time ago.
Unfavorably for a number of reasons including the whitish stirng sound.
I have pretty much all the recordings of Elgar conducted by Elgar--don't
recall hearing that whitish string sound there.  Perhaps there is more
to the sound obtained by Elgar's players than just eschewing vibrato.

   August 13, 2008
   Elgar Without Vibrato? Fiddlesticks
   By DANIEL J. WAKIN
   The New York Times
   
   The Great Vibrato Controversy is sending tremors through,
   well, a small corner of British cultural life.
   
   The conductor Roger Norrington, a champion of playing
   classical music in the style of its day, says he may play
   Elgar's 'Pomp and Circumstance' March No. 1 on the last
   night of Britain's premier music festival, the Proms, at
   the Royal Albert Hall in London, without vibrato. Oh, the
   horror!
   
   True, it is not the stuff to tear down an empire.  But
   traditionalists in England are in a huff, sending rockets
   of outrage into the blogosphere and newspaper columns.
   
   'Elgar without vibrato is the musical equivalent of dead
   roses,' Stephen Pollard, a columnist, harrumphed in The
   Times of London last week.
   
   As a rule, Elgar's music has been played with the lusher,
   fuller sound produced by that slight oscillation of pitch
   called vibrato, which is typical of modern playing. But Mr.
   Norrington argues that orchestras in Elgar's day played
   with much less vibrato, and that an unadulterated sound
   better suits the music.
   
   The dispute sits atop the intersection of deeper issues,
   like British national pride and how to bring art of the
   past back to life. At the heart of the kerfuffle lies the
   reputation of Edward Elgar, the quintessentially British
   composer in a country that can be sensitive about its
   relative dearth of great masters. Elgar, who wrote works
   including the 'Enigma' Variations and a popular cello
   concerto, is best known for the 'Pomp and Circumstance'
   March, which is a staple at high school graduation ceremonies
   even in America.
   
   The piece is called 'Land of Hope and Glory' in the version
   traditionally sung at the vaunted Last Night of the Proms,
   when the buttoned-down British public goes a little nutty,
   wearing costumes, waving Union Jacks and singing along.
   That night (Sept. 13 this year) draws the most attention,
   but two months' worth of concerts precede it. One of those
   last month featured Mr.  Norrington and his Stuttgart Radio
   Symphony Orchestra playing Elgar's Symphony No. 1. That
   prompted a letter to The Times of London, which seems to
   have set off the debate.
   
   'Sir, as a professional violinist, I was appalled by
   the quality of sound,' Raymond Cohen wrote in the letter,
   published on July 29. 'To anyone with a musical ear, it
   sounded bizarre.' Columnists and other musicians soon weighed
   in, some aquiver with rage. Mr. Norrington's performances
   were 'screeching' and 'unmusical,' Mr. Pollard wrote, and
   someone identified as R. G. James of Brasschaat, Belgium,
   commented on The Times's Web site (timesonline.co.uk), 'I
   am fed up with these politically correct liberals in the
   establishment doing all they can to denigrate and undermine
   British and English cultural icons.'
   
   Mr. Norrington has 'gone too far,' the composer Anthony
   Payne was quoted as saying in an article in The Guardian.
   That article also quoted Mark Elder, the music director of
   the Halle Orchestra in Manchester and the conductor of the
   Last Night of the Proms in 2007, as calling Mr. Norrington
   a wonderful but obsessed musician.
   
   The debate blossomed into a discussion of a burning issue
   in the classical music world: How much should performers
   try to reproduce the musical conditions that existed when
   a piece was written? It is no small matter. We experience
   old paintings with an unmediated eye, but works of classical
   music require interpreters to bring black marks on a page
   to life.
   
   The early-music movement of the second half of the 20th
   century sought to return to music's performing roots, and
   Mr. Norrington played a major part in that movement in the
   1980s and '90s. He and other period-performance evangelists
   moved from the Baroque through Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven
   to the Romantics, and some now lap at the early 20th century,
   when Elgar was composing.
   
   The movement calls for the use of instruments of the day,
   but also different techniques: cleaner articulation, sometimes
   swifter tempos, clarity of texture and, of course, less
   vibrato. And it has permeated contemporary orchestral
   playing.  Even the most traditional conductors give a bow
   toward some aspects of the style. Some commentators have
   suggested that the movement is, in fact, a reflection of
   our modernist age.
   
   'We value clarity, transparency, precision, sharpness,
   rather than what some people consider the excessive lyricism
   and indulgence and big sound of previous eras,' said Nicholas
   Kenyon, the former Proms director who engaged Mr. Norrington.
   
   As for vibrato, it has been used throughout music history
   to varying degrees, often applied in small dollops to
   intensify expression, before becoming part of the basic
   string sound in the first decades of the last century.
   String players create it by moving fingers slightly back
   and forth on the fingerboard, wind players most often by
   oscillating the air= flow.
   
   Mr. Norrington has taken vibratoless playing farther than
   most, issuing recordings of works by Tchaikovsky, Brahms,
   Mahler and Wagner with his Stuttgart orchestra using what
   he prefers to call 'pure tone' rather than vibrato-free.
   He wrote an article on the subject for The New York Times
   in 2003.
   
   Byron Adams, a musicologist at the University of California,
   Riverside, and a leading Elgar scholar, said Mr. Norrington
   was somewhat extreme in stripping away vibrato from Elgar's
   music. But he lauded the effort to tone down a 'hyperintense
   expressionistic quality' that came to be the norm in the
   1960s.
   
   In an interview last Wednesday, Mr. Norrington was coy about
   how the BBC Symphony Orchestra will sound when he conducts
   it at the Proms' final night. He said he would ask the
   players in rehearsal what they preferred in matters of
   vibrato.
   
   But he was unwavering about his own preference.  He cited
   a Schoenberg reference to vibrato as 'goat bleating,' called
   the heavily vibrating French woodwind sections of the 1920s
   'earthquake zones' and referred to the practice as 'acoustic
   central heating.'
   
   Pure tone, he said, is a beautiful thing that restores a
   sense of innocence and dignity to Romantic music and makes
   phrasing more important.
   
   Mr. Norrington acknowledged that hearing Romantic music
   played with minimal vibrato could be a 'bit of a shock' for
   the first-time listener. He conceded that his opponents
   have a legitimate point of view: 'It's not a professor
   saying, 'Just shut up or we'll lose India.' '
   
   He also acknowledged that early recordings of orchestras
   playing Elgar's music under the composer's own baton revealed
   a fair bit of vibrato. But he contended that the practice
   was creeping into orchestras whether composers liked it or
   not, and that Elgar grew up as a musician listening to music
   without vibrato.
   
   'In the end it's an aesthetic question,' he said.  'It's a
   matter of taste. I love the sound.'
   
   It might not even matter what style the BBC orchestra adopts
   on the Last Night of the Proms, Mr. Norrington said. 'You're
   lucky if you can hear how they're playing at all, with all
   the singing.' He added, mischievously, that if he does an
   encore, 'I'll ask the whole of the auditorium to sing with
   more of a vibrato.'

Roger Hecht

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