Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Vibrato: how little is too much?

Pianist Stephen Hough, in his blog for the British newspaper The Telegraph, takes on the issue of vibrato in string playing. He notes that this practice of slightly wavering pitch to produce a more rounded, rich tone became prevalent when musicians stopped using gut strings, which have an "internal quiver due to the irregularity of the natural material," and began using steel strings, which are "naturally clean and 'cold' and in need of vibrato" to flesh out their sound:


String vibrato vs. its minimization – not its absence: Fiddlers rarely play with absolutely no vibrato – has been one of the hottest points of contention between adherents to historically informed performance (HIP) practices and non-HIP ("modern") musicians.

I spent many fruitful hours discussing the issue with the late Frederick Neumann, the musicologist and violinist who in the years after his retirement from the University of Richmond faculty was one of the most articulate foes of low-vibrato playing. (He was kind enough to acknowledge my interlocutor’s role in his book "New Essays on Performance Practice.")

Neumann (1908-94) lived through the transition from gut to steel strings, and would endorse Hough’s point that high-tension steel strings are more reliable in pitch and produce a more brilliant tone that projects better in large, modern concert spaces. I chuckle to think how Neumann might have responded to Hough’s observation that the unsteadier pitch of gut strings "simulate a vibrato" when played in ensembles.

If he were around today, Neumann would probably say he lost his battles against reduced vibrato and other HIP practices, such as double-dotted rhythms and the note-swelling technique called messa di voce. They are employed routinely in baroque and classical music, and have been used selectively in much of the 19th-century romantic repertory.

Neumann, though, planted a question about vibrato: How little is too much, making string sound too thin and weak, and denaturing musical tone and expression? The answer that HIP and HIP-aware fiddlers have settled on might gratify him.

String players today, whether playing modern or period-style instruments (more and more play both), naturally produce a leaner tone and articulate more crisply in Bach, Mozart and Beethoven than they do in Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Puccini. And because they do, they tend to play the earlier composers at faster tempos and with sharper accents. (Perhaps not coincidentally, they seem to play the later composers more broadly.)

Vibrato – hardly lush, but perceptible and sometimes quite pronounced – has returned to baroque and classical string performance, especially in slow movements and passages meant to impart emotional affect. In the quest for affectus, historically informed specialists sometimes apply more vibrato than a modern violinist would think seemly.

The battle that Neumann joined, and Hough revisits, sounds to have been resolved sensibly. Strings, gut and steel, are played with vibrato, but with differing quantities and qualities, depending on the composer, the music’s period and its pace and expressive demands.