Vibrato, portamento, Elgar and me
Much fussing of late from London's Proms, where Roger Norrington threatens to strip Edward Elgar of his vibrato. I'm not a staff employee of the new New York Times any more, so I won't belabor you with a Music 101 definition of vibrato. Suffice it to say that Norrington, fulfilling a lifelong crusade, thinks vibrato when applied to most 19th-century music (let alone 18th-century music and extending, as with Elgar, into early-20th-century Romanticism) is hopelessly overused. He wants music to sound lean and clean, the pure note untroubled by excessive wavering, and scrubbing away vibrato is one good way to do it.
Musicologically, he has a point. Vibrato was certainly used more selectively in the past, though hardly banned. Its current ubiquity has something to do with a perceived richer sound from the strings and something with string players' understandable preference for a technique that makes it easier for them to sound in tune.
But Richard Taruskin has a point, too, as usual, when he argues that the aesthetic of the early-music movement is less "authentic" (utterly inauthentic, he would contend at his feistiest) than reflective of the present-day predilections of its proponents. Norrington is a modernist. He eschews decorative frippery, which for him includes soupy vibrato.
But what about portamento? In Elgar's case, we have actual recordings of his music conducted, as late as the early 1930's, by himself. Yes, there's vibrato, though I suppose you could argue that that represented already ingrained habits of orchestral musicians that he didn't feel like purging. (Unlikely, but you could argue that). Far more striking is the ample application of portamento. High notes are swooped up to and down from. Phrases are more curves than linked individual notes.
When I was first writing about, and championing, Norrington for the Times in the 1980's, I had long discussions with him about both vibrato and portamento. (He was and remians a most engaging, clever man.) In my biased view, his antipathy to portamento came down to a simple matter of taste. In defiance of the recordings, he just didn't like portamento, and for the same reason that most modernists disliked it: he thought it sounded corny.
Maybe he's right; he certainly is right in advocating his own preferences. But his resistance to portamento proves Taruskin's point. All the research in the world crumbles before taste, and taste reflects the era in which it is formed. Norrington is a terrific conductor, but (and?) he's a modernist, or at least a modern-day musician. He can accept, even impose, vibrato, but for him portamento goes too far.
It would still be fun some day to hear a modern-day Elgar performance that really tried to replicate how the composer as conductor handled both portamento and vibrato in his own music. Maybe at the Proms some day. If taste permits.
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