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
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
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
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
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
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
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
'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.'
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