Monday, August 04, 2008
There's a wave of talk again about vibrato, for it, against it, and everywhere in-between. When it comes to historically-informed performance practice, it's not wild to speculate that, in any given era, the actually degree and speed of vibrato used by real performers has varied wildly, both inter- and intramurally.*
The absence of vibrato might, in some cases, indicate an aesthetic preference, in others, laziness or even a lack of training. The presence of vibrato, on the other hand, might indicate a different aesthetic preference, as well as laziness (vibrato, can, of course, cover up lazy intonation) and/or lack of training. The central issue with regard to vibrato ought, however, be control: over the depth, speed, contour and placement of vibrato as a valuable ornament. From this viewpoint, the constant application or the constant absence of vibrato — when not specifically demanded in the score** — is often a sign of lack of control, if not plain error.
That said, given the over-use of vibrato up through most of the 20th century, the historically informed players who have attempted vibrato-free performances have presented a welcome corrective and I believe that a more balanced approach to the application of vibrato will come when the point of departure is a vibrato-setting of zero rather than one of eleven.
* During my Hungarian years, I often heard orchestras of Roma musicians among whose members there appeared a deep competition to produced the widest and fastest vibrato, and when not that, the vibrato at most wildly variant from the rest of the ensemble (these were orchestras, after all, entirely composed of musicians used to working otherwise only as soloists). Rather than dismissing this altogether, I came to the conviction that there was, in this performance style, some legitimate traces of historical high-brow practice, both good, bad, and indifferent.
** In, for example, John Cage's String Quartet in Four Parts.