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. 

August 29, 2008 3:35 PM | | Comments (2)


Norrington's preference for minimal string vibrato may not have been Elgar's. A violinist himself, no doubt Elgar had a preference, but I'm not aware that he ever said what his preference was. He may have shown it, however, by composing his violin concerto for Fritz Kreisler, notable for playing with constant vibrato, and recording it with the young Yehudi Menuhin, a modern violinist in every way.

Most of the various orchestras Elgar conducted on records played in the old-fashioned way, of course. Even if he may have wished otherwise, Elgar could hardly have retrained the string players of each orchestra in an unaccustomed technique and style of playing, during the limited rehearsal time available at recording sessions.

James Levine once said listeners shouldn't assume that what a conductor hears from his orchestra is always what he wants to hear. Norrington does assume this, or appears to, for the sake of his argument, but as a very experienced conductor he surely knows better.

Glad to see someone has brought up the evidence of Elgar's own recordings, its well known he was very involved with these and was very careful that his own recordings reflected his wishes -- perhaps the first composer to use recording as a way of conveying his legacy in addition to the printed score; also Elgar was a violinist and would have been very familiar with string technique.

For example there are three with Elgar conducting of Pomp & Circumstance" #1.,: the Feb. 06 1914 -- very heavy slides, glissandi and portamenti; April 27 1926, less but clearly an important part of the performance and most interesting the Nov. 12 1931 fragment for the Pathe Newsreel with the LSO where the violins slide together while the cello's underneath use a very heavy vibrato -- the effect in the last is so distinct that I am convinced it has to have been instructed and is Elgar's method of conveying emotion while retaining a fast tempo and straightforward almost deliberately blunt conducting style. The evidence of Elgar’s own recording of the First Symphony and the early recordings of Bolt, whose interpretations Elgar admired according to surviving correspondence from Lady Elgar, make it clear to me that here Norrington is allowing his 'general theory' to supersede the weight of direct evidence.

From the evidence of recordings generally there does appear to have been a fairly rapid change in string technique over the period 1920-1930, most clear if one compares early 1920's with immediately post WWII recordings, perhaps coupled with changes brought on with the introduction of metal rather than gut strings. But then its clear from pre-war recordings, and later recordings of those who established a style pre-war, that prior to the modern homogenization details of string technique and overall performance style varied from place to place.

By analogy the distinct differences in English choirs were dependent not only on the organist and choir master but also the acoustic characteristics of the building in which they regularly sang. We do know that pitch only became ‘standard’ rather than 'local' in relatively recent times; is there any evidence for the assumption that there was any general standards in performance practice rather than differing local norms?


For an ongoing conversation and news reports about arts journalism, go to the blog of the National Arts Journalism Program, here.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by John Rockwell published on August 29, 2008 3:35 PM.

Critical Meanies was the previous entry in this blog.

Dead All Over is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.