Music score

Classical Recordings without Vibrato

Is it possible to find recordings of classical music performed without vibrato? By this I mean voice and instruments which typically are nowadays taught with a constant vibrato, such as flute and violin. (There are still a few instruments, such as clarinet, which have not yet converted.) Admittedly, it is difficult to find, but the growth of the "historically informed performance" (HIP) movement means than some are beginning to appear.

By the term "classical music" I mean the period from the Baroque era to the early 20th century. I'm excluding medieval and Renaissance music since is normal not to use vibrato in most modern perfomances. And I'm excluding most of the 20th century, first because much of the music tends to the avant-garde, secondly because vibrato was in use during most of this period anyway. I'm interested in music which is usually performed with vibrato today, but was not at the time it was composed.

I'm going to collect short reviews of various recordings I have come across that meet these qualifications. I invite anyone interested to submit their own favourites. In a little while I may actually insert a forms processor to collect this information, but for the moment, just send e-mail.

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Reviews currently available:

Ingrid Matthews (baroque violin) and Byron Schenkman (harpsichord)
in Stil Moderno: the fantastic style in seventeenth-century Italy

The two performers are connected with the Seattle Baroque Orchestra, as well as other HIP groups such as Tafelmusik. The music comes from the early Baroque period in Italy. Most of the composers are not particularly well known, except for Frescobaldi. Included are such characters are Biago Marini, supposedly the inventor of the double-stop, and Isabella Leonarda, one of the female composers of the period, who are only just beginning to get some recognition.

The Baroque violin differs from the modern violin in being more lightly constructed, with a softer, more focused tone. It should be played with a Baroque bow, which is shorter than a modern bow and curved in the opposite direction. Despite these differences, there are performers who attempt to apply a modern playing style to a Baroque instrument. Ms Matthew's playing is particularly nice in that it avoids this tendency. The lack of vibrato allows the melodic line to predominate, giving a wonderful focus to the piece. And since the artistic emphasis at this period was on a single expressive melody with a harmonic accompaniment, this approach is well-suited to bringing out the character of the music.

The pieces selected are quite appealing, and the performance brings out their charm very successfully. The virtuosic passages are exciting without being forced.

The accompanying notes provide illuminating background information both on the style of the period and the composers, most of whom were better known in their own time than they are today. Recordings such as this should help to bring them to the attention of modern listeners.

Important Early Sound Recordings
Great Violinists: Vol. 1
Symposium Records 1071

This recording is a compilation of recordings made mostly in the first decade of the twentieth century (the range is 1903-1929), featuring the great violinists of the time. Other similar compilations are also available containing much of the same material.

The first two selections were recorded by Prof. Dr. Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) in June 1903 when he was 72 years old. The young Joachim played with Mendelssohn every Sunday for 3 years. He was also a friend of Liszt and Schumann, but he is most closely associated with his lifelong friend Johannes Brahms, and Brahms' violin compositions were written with him in mind. Joachim was the director of the Hochshule für Musik zu Berlin. In view of what is frequently said about the appropriateness of vibrato in performing the music of Brahms, it is interesting to note that Joachim plays virtually without vibrato—at most a very shallow vibrato on phrase endings.

Also featured on the CD is Joachim's pupil, Leopold Auer (1845-1930), whose views on vibrato I have quoted, Hugo Heerman (1844-1915), Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908), and others. In short, we have a very good overview of the great violinists of the second half of the 19th century. It is clear that, to quote the CD notes, the device of vibrato is "a means largely eschewed in the period from Leopold Mozart to Joachim". The recording also includes some of the following generation of violinists, especially Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962), who are associated with the development of both vibrato and rubato as used in the violin style of the 20th century.

Another interesting feature of the 19th century virtuosi is the purity of their tone. The CD notes rather cattily make comments such as "his tone attractive rather than large", while the later performers are praised for their "large tone". In other words, the ever-increasing size of concert halls and the ever-increasing size of orchestras forced soloists to develop volume at all costs.

It's slightly puzzling that these changes in performance styles are so little known among modern classical musicians, although the entire process has been documented by recording. At any rate, this CD makes a valuable antidote to such ignorance.

The Recorded Violin, Volume 1
The History of the Violin on Record from the incomparable collection of Raymond Glaspole
Pearl Records BVA 1

This is a really massive project. There are two volumes, and each volume contains 3 CDs of about 75 minutes each, so there are more than 7 hours of listening in total. However, from my point of view, the first volume is the most interesting. (The selections are ordered by the date of birth of the performer.)

It's interesting to listen to the 3 CDs in the first volume, because you can hear the changes from the early virtuosi like Joseph Joachim, Hugo Heerman, Leopold Auer (and many more), who hardly use any vibrato at all, through the use of a rather shallow vibrato in the 1920s by the likes of Jacques Thibaud, until by the 1930s today's megawobble was becoming the norm. Of course, since many performers had quite long careers, there is quite a overlap in styles. Another difference is that some of the earlier performers used quite a lot more portamento than is fashionable today.

It's an ear-opener to hear Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Saint-Saëns and Tchaikovsky played without the customary vibrato. Many of these performers worked closely with the great composers of their time, so we can get a good picture of what the original performances of some of these works sounded like. The early recordings have a lot of surface noise, but nevertheless the magnificent tone of the performers can be appreciated. (Naturally, most of them played Stradivarius or Guarnerius violins.) Using gut strings without vibrato puts an emphasis on correct intonation unknown to the modern metal-strung vibrator. Some of the early performances have the occasional dodgy note, but it should be appreciated that in some cases the performers were quite elderly by the time they recorded. (And I've heard some live performances by some modern soloists that left something to be desired on the intonation front, too. In the modern recording studio, they can always go back later and fix up problems—in fact, an engineer can even touch things up with computerized editing.)

The later recordings have less surface noise but more vibrato, so if you listen through, it tends to give the impression that the transcription turntable is developing a speed regulation problem.

The early generation of recording virtuosi had a much wider range of styles than is common today. Schools founded by great teachers perpetuated the style of the teacher among the pupils. Nowadays, students worldwide aim at a single homogenized style, promulgated by recordings. The earlier performers definitely show more flair and personality in their playing; today this would be looked upon with suspicion. The notes point out: "the blindfold listener who had to tell Perlman, Chung, Mullova, Kremer, Zukerman, Mintz and Kantorow apart would have a much harder task than the listener faced with distinguishing Kreisler, Thibaud, Busch, Szigeti, Huberman, Kubelik and Elman. Something in individuality has been lost."

In terms of technical brilliance, almost all the performances are awe-inspiring. There seems to be little evidence for the theory that standards have gone up over the last century. The notes make the point that the modern virtuoso is expected to perform a wider range of repertoire. While this is true, there is also a disturbing tendency to use the same style for everything from Handel to Shostakovich.

Another interesting feature of this set is the inclusion of a number of female performers, such as Austrian Marie Soldat (1864-1955), American Maud Powell (1868-1920), Northumbrian Marie Hall (1884-1956), Renée Chemet ("The French Kreisler"), Canadian Kathleen Parlow (1890-1963) and Indian-born Englishwoman May Harrison (1890-1959).

The second volume in general has more vibrato, as would be expected, but still there are some performers who use very little. I must confess I found some of the selections lacked musical interest; they seemed just a collection of flashy virtuoso tricks.

The third CD in the set breaks from the chronological ordering by featuring composer/performers playing their own work. Here we find Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962), who considering he often gets the credit (or blame) for the introduction of the constant vibrato, is curiously sparing in his own use of it. Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931), said to be the founder of the "Franco-Belgian" school of vibrato, is similarly much more restrained than many of his pupils who also appear in the collection.

The booklets that accompany the CD sets, with notes by Tully Potter, are extensive, well-done and very informative.

The Great Flautists
Moyse, Gaubert, Barrère, Le Roy
Pearl Records GEMM CD 9284

This recording features four leading French flautists, recorded between 1916 and 1934. These are Phillippe Gaubert (1879-1941), Marcel Moyse (1889-1984), René le Roy (1898-1895), and Georges Barrère (1876-1944). The concept is much along the same lines as the collections of early violin recordings. It would not accurate to say that the playing is completely devoid of vibrato, but when it is there, it is very subtle and not objectionable. The range is narrow and the pulse is very rapid—very much in contrast with the slow wobble fashionable with the flautists of today.

The pieces include works by Debussy, Bach, Gluck, Bizet and Elgar, among others. The standard of performance is very good. However, what particularly impressed me was the remarkable tone achieved by all four performers. This is probably due to the influence of Claude Paul Taffanel (1844-1908) of the Paris Conservatoire, whose influence is crediting with creating the French school of flute playing.

There is a book on Marcel Moyse. Marcel Moyse: Voice of the Flute by Ann McCutchan: traces the career of the flutist Moyse, from his early days as a member of the Ballets Russes orchestra in France, to his founding of the Marlboro Music School and Festival in the US. Draws on interviews with Moyse's students in Europe and America, his colleagues, and family members, and focuses on the cultural and political conditions that molded him. Includes b&w photos. This book has a listing on (not to be considered an endorsement of this retailer—your local independent bookseller can order it for you).

Georges Barrère joined the New York Symphony in 1905, and was very influential in the United States. I was interested to discover that Edgar Varèse's Density 21.5 refers to the chemical density of Barrère's platinum flute. The piece was dedicated to Barrère. (It's not on this recording, though.) Barrère did adopt more vibrato in later years, to keep up with the latest fashion. His comments on the subject include:

For the fifty years I had been tooting my instrument, my daily care was to avoid the vibrato. Once I literally scared an audience by asserting that vibrato was produced by taking a pure tone and moving it above and below correct pitch at a certain rate of speed, thus indulging in playing more or less out of tune! Today … to declare that Expression might sometimes be achieved just by the absence of vibrato, would, in most quarters, only earn an incredulous frown. Isn't it still possible to express Beauty by pure lines, such as we find in ancient Greek marbles?

This recording provides the opportunity of hearing Barrère and his compatriots demonstrate the magnificence of the French school of flute playing as it existed in the early 20th century. There is some surface noise on these early recordings, but the performances and above all the rich tone overcome this. Highly recommended.

London Baroque
Purcell: Chamber Music
harmonia mundi 901327

I've never been that fond of the vocal music of Henry Purcell (1659-1695). It's just a bit too florid for my taste. But I like this collection of instrumental music. It avoids the well-known Fantazias for some of his lesser-known works.

The presentation is nice. The ensemble is small: three violins, alto violin, 'cello or bass viol, and keyboard continuo. Some of the continuo is done on the organ instead of the harpsichord, which gives a nice effect. On some of the pieces the keyboard is so far in the background you can hardly heard it. This allows the bowed bass line to support the piece on its own, which it does very well.

The notes don't give much information. However, it sounds to me like period instruments. In any case, the bowing sounds very authentic for the baroque period. With one player on a part, and without vibrato, the result is a nice transparent texture which allows all the parts to be heard.

Lisa Beznosiuk (flutes) and Nigel North (lute, guitar)
Concord of Sweet Sounds: Baroque and Classical Music for flute & lute/guitar
Amon Ra CD-SAR 33

This recording is a nice example of HIP flute playing. The first three pieces are Baroque works by Locatelli, J.S. Bach and C.P.E. Bach performed on Baroque lute and Baroque flute. These are nicely done but not particularly unusual, since Baroque music on original instruments is reasonably common these days.

The next four pieces are a little out of the ordinary as they are chosen to be representative of Vienna in the early 19th century (at the time of the Congress of Vienna, actually). This is not a period which attracts as many HIP performances. These pieces are performed on 6 string classical guitar of that period (somewhat different from the modern classical guitar) and 8-key wooden flute. The works are by Giuliani, and arrangements by Diabelli of pieces by Beethoven and Schubert.

This is not really my favourite period in music history, since it seems to me that too often arpeggios were mistaken for melody, and modulation into another key for melodic development. However, the pieces selected have a certain charm, and allow Beznosiuk to display her very capable technique very effectively without being hidden behind a wall of vibrato. She does have a very slight natural vibrato, but it is quite subtle. All in all, very pleasant listening.

The following was kindly submitted by a reader:

You may be interested in the following CD:
The International Trumpet Guild presents Cornet Solos by Pioneer American Recording Artists Made Prior to 1906. ITG Historical Series 004. (1995)

The performances of thirty solos for cornet, either with piano or large band accompaniment, are included on this CD. Many (most?) of the performances are devoid of vibrato. This observation may tie in well with your theme of the absence of vibrato in earlier eras.

Cordially yours, Andre M. Smith
Trombonist in New York

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