Dr. Ross W. Duffin

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Performance Practice: Que me veux-tu? 3

Performance Practice: Que me veux-tu? Duffin
(What do you want from me?) page 3

Finally, we come to ornamentation, the parameter on which we tend to spend most of our time in the studio. Here we have the help of many, many treatises and edition prefaces, elucidating ornamentation signs and recommending florid ways of getting expressively from one note to another. “Hmm…Which of the 24 different varieties of port de voix should I use here?” The trouble with most theoretical descriptions is that they tend to be hopelessly formulaic, however helpful they might be as sources of ideas. Take Quantz’s section on ornamenting simple intervals. If you were to use it to ornament a slow movement, you would come up with a string of unrelated “noodles” (as some refer to florid baroque ornamentation), and miss entirely the gestural element that is crucial to the question of how much ornamentation to use where. That’s why we are fortunate to have some written-out examples of ornamentation. The authority of some of these has been called into question. For example, Handel’s embellishments for a few of his arias: what singer of Handel needed to have the embellishments written out, anyway? Think about it. But the Sonate Methodiche of Telemann are especially useful, not least because they give us a chance to see hear slow movement ornamentation in a variety of different meters, and meter is an important key to the gestural element I mentioned. Corelli also has some of his Opus V solo sonatas published, first in Amsterdam then in London, with the ornamentations advertised as printed “the way Signor Corelli wishes them to be played.” We have no way of knowing whether that is true but still, they are a valuable record of what might have been done. Even given the precise ornamental indications, however, and paying attention to virtually every parameter of performance practice, it is still possible to come up with performances that sound and feel very different. If you were to listen to two or three recordings of the first movement of Corelli’s Sonata Opus V, No. 3, you’d see what I mean.Sigiswald Kuijken’s (Accent ACC 48433D) is calm and flowing with a round tone, a leisurely vibrato, and an unhurried meander through Corelli’s fanciful roulades.Ingrid Seifert’s (EMI CDC 7 47965 2) is more intense, with a silvery tone, noticeable liberties with the written ornamentation, and an uncanny sense of rubato.Monica Huggett’s (Virgin Classics VCD 790840-2) has a strong rhetorical sense with lots of dynamic nuance, and combines the warm sound of Kuijken with the greater urgency of Seifert. The more recent Andrew Manze recording (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907298-99) falls into the category of “inspired by,” rather than interpretation of Corelli’s ornaments.

 
Sigiswald Kuijken
 
Ingrid Seifert
 
Monica Huggett
 
Andrew Manze
 
     I want to talk at some length about vibrato because it’s one of the obvious points of difference in approach among those performances, and because it will serve as a kind of case-study for vibrato as something that needs to be considered within the performance practice parameter of ornamentation. It also tends to be the focus of discussion for mainstream players reacting to historical performance. I’ll begin by excerpting published interviews with two internationally-renowned violinists, just to show that it’s on their minds. The first is Pinchas Zukerman in his own, carefully-chosen words:
“…all this Norrington/Hogwood nonsense. That is absolute and complete asinine STUFF. I mean it has nothing to do with music, it has nothing to do with historical performance. Zero. It’s nothing, it means nothing.…It’s made for people who have no sound and no ability to make sound.…It is a complete and absolute farce, it is FUCKING AWFUL.…It is DISGUSTING.…There’s no question that there are players who have gone way out with all kinds of portamentos and vibratos and slides, but, you know what? It still sounds better than what they do! I mean, Jascha Heifetz: I don’t exactly agree with his exact way of playing Mozart but it’s still Jascha Heifetz, and I daresay that in seventy-five years people will listen to his rendition of a Mozart concerto rather than some idiot that played it on an authentic instrument, you know? There’s no question about that.” from Fanfare Magazine, March/April, 1991.

Lest you think he might have softened his opinion since 1991, he was still describing the historical performance movement as “a fraud and a sacrilege” on NPR’s Performance Today in October, 1994, and then there’s this more recent barrage:

“I hate it. It’s disgusting.…The first time I heard that shit, I couldn’t believe it. It’s complete rubbish, and the people who play it.… Maybe one or two or a half-dozen have wonderful musical minds, but I certainly don’t want to hear them perform.” from The Toronto Globe and Mail, March 8, 2000.

This is the “Who cares? I’m better than they are” reaction to historical performance. Then there’s Itzhak Perlman on historical performance:

“I don’t like it because I find this manner of playing to be inexpressive, and sonorities without vibrato to be totally lacking in warmth. The research is interesting from an historical standpoint, but personally I don’t think it’s truly authentic. I hope in any case that it’s just a fad. I believe the recording companies bear a large responsibility in the development of this phenomenon because it was a way they could sell more discs. I’m certain that Haydn and Mozart would have adored our modern approach to phrasing and vibrato…” from Diaspason Harmonie, June, 1991.

This is the “Ah, if they only knew better in those days” reaction. More recently, he is quoted as saying:

“I think [historical performance is] very nice for the classroom, but it really is a cult — and it gets to me. I hear all this non-vibrato phrasing and it makes me very impatient. It’s just so sterile. Whenever I hear that kind of thing on the radio, I turn on to another station and get rock’n’roll from the Fifties and I’ll listen to that.” BBC Music Magazine, May, 1995.

One thing that mainstream performers often claim is the strength of their performing tradition and the concept of evolution towards a more perfect style. (This argument is often heard about instruments as well.) But what astonishes many, therefore, is to discover that the basic string technique of constant vibrato (“The vibrato is the life of the sound” as undergraduate music history papers put it) arose only around the end of the First World War. Recordings from before that time are remarkable for the scarcity of it (as well as for the abundance of now-passé portamenti). The proliferation of recordings after World War I may be responsible for making the new “vibrant” sound standard throughout the world, and now it’s one of the main differences between historical and mainstream style.

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Page last modified: February 2, 2017