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Jessica Duchen
Wednesday 18th August 2010
Shaking, stirring or just plain wobbly?

A little Twitter exchange in the wake of a vibrato-free Norrington rendition of Vaughan Williams and Elgar in Gloucester has led the inimitable Stephen Hough (follow him! He tweets as @houghhough) to write an extremely interesting and informative blogpost on the topic. He makes clear the difference between the sound of non-vibrato gut strings - their tone possesses a natural wobble - and the deathly effect that results when modern orchestras strung up with steel are ordered to switch off the shake.

He also raises the issue of portamento - slides as the string players shift hand position - which was de rigeur in the early 20th century, but is scarcely done now, never mind that it is unquestionably authentic and can be proven so by recordings from the time.

The other week I had a lovely interview with Tasmin Little about the Elgar Violin Concerto; she has just recorded the work and the CD will be out on Chandos in November. As a bonus track she has reconstructed, with a little help from her friends, a rare version of the great accompanied cadenza as recorded by the violinist Marie Hall (1884-1956), in which a harp is added to the orchestration. Elgar himself was conducting. The recording was made in 1916 and Elgar had to shorten the work in order for it to fit onto a series of 78rpms. Tasmin tells me that the composer decided to add a harp to point up the 'thrumming' effect of the pizzicato strings, due to the limitations of sound recording.

The one thing she hasn't reconstructed, though, is the style in which Marie Hall plays the violin. "It's very period, with a lot of portamento," she explained. "You'd never get away with that these days. It sounds very dated." We talked around this concept for a while and she concluded that the most important thing for any soloist is to be true to yourself. I agree with her whole-heartedly.

Interesting concept, though. It bugs me that "period style" is widely accepted as "historically informed" when it is vibrato-free and fast - but not much otherwise. Marie Hall's Elgar is not only historically informed: it is history itself. But it's too true: you'd never get away with that these days. Selective historicity tells us much about the nature of what we accept and what we reject, even when the latter is closer to what we believe we are seeking. Words like babies and bathwater come to mind.

The sorry truth is that selective historicity is a musical Size Zero. Is it a coincidence that today's ideal of physical beauty is thin? Think of what models go through to make themselves look 'beautiful': anorexia reigns supreme. It is totally unnatural, yet society has become convinced it's the only way to be. Lean, mean and hungry means 'beautiful': it is an obscene perversion that reflects the zeitgeist of a world in which many in a few lands are morbidly obese while millions on other continents are starving.

The sound of lean, mean and hungry music-making has caught on not because it's historic but because it is awfully contemporary. It chimes with something in the air we breathe, even though that is itself out of tune with our inner nature.

One Size Zero does not fit all music, though, and the idea that innocent audiences are swallowing such double-standards daily makes me feel distinctly wobbly. Because you have to wonder who is benefitting from the con trick. Someone must be. Someone will be selling records.

You only need to look at Leopold Mozart's Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing to realise that some effects held holy in selective historicity are actually nothing more than exercises for beginner violinists: bulges in the centre of long notes are written out to help develop bow control, double-dotting is a technique to stop kiddies from rushing the rhythm and at no point does Mozart's dad, who was contemporaneous with Bach, advocate using no 'tremolato' whatsoever; indeed, he advises adding this effect, which we now call vibrato, to long notes to add to their expressiveness. It's a decoration, but it's there. And he presents exercises for practising it.

We've been too gullible, too reverential, too blinded by apparent scholarship (even if some of it appears to be phoney). It's time for a little sense, a little balance.

Stephen (one of my favourite pianists, by the way) is as reverent towards the period-or-bust conductors as we are all supposed to be, but I won't join him. I'm not 'standing on the shoulders' of any of those guys. Sure, they've done some good, interesting and curious work. There've been some good effects, and some less good ones (the latter includes the early-music ghettoisastion of Haydn). But why worship them? This orange is not the only fruit.

If we have to stand on people's shoulders, let it be those of the great musicians who understand music from the inner twists of its soul, the content in the heart, not only the surface. If the musicianship is truly together with the soul of the composer, then surface effects are essentially irrelevant: you can vibrate or not, use gut or steel strings, and the understanding will transcend either. But if the musicianship is not great enough, no amount of rigorous historical 'correctness' can replace it.

If we're going to stand on anyone's shoulders, let it be Elgar's, Henry Wood's, Mahler's, Rachmaninov's, Toscanini's. For them, music was a matter of life and death. That attitude would be really authentic. But you'd never get away with it now.

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About Jessica Duchen

Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and the author of four novels, two biographies and several stage works. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. Her latest novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, is published by Hodder.

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