Elgar- let’s check the instant replay

I am feeling a bit weak today, because I begin this post today knowing that it means that I will have broken my “glass house” rule two days in a row. I’m sure the karmic gods will make me pay….

I’ve been listening to the now notorious performance of Elgar 1. Safely (by my math) within the limitations of fair use (which specifies 10% of a performance as a maximum), perhaps we can listen to and discuss a few excerpts. Surely the one of the goals the conductor must have had is to stimulate debate and discussion. I want to try and really talk about this performance, which I’m glad I got to hear, and not do any name calling.

First, let me say that the orchestra plays at a marvelously high standard, with especially fine intonation (a good lesson to all of us to encourage orchestras to rehearse intonation work without vibrato, and to avoid vibrato in performance whenever it muddies tuning) and very tight ensemble  (aside from a terrible near train wreck in the Finale- but live music allows for these moments, and I’m glad he didn’t play it safe, as too much of the performance is a bit stodgy anyway). The conductor certainly deserves significant credit for this, as well as for persuading the orchestra to rally round his cause- they make as sincere and polished a case for this performance as you could ask for.

However, without going into stultifying detail (aw heck, even if I do go into stultifying detail), there are problems with the approach that far transcend the use of string vibrato, and point to this being an expression of a musical aesthetic that belongs not to Elgar, but to the conductor himself, who, like Stowkowski before him, seems to have decided he knows better than the author how the symphony should sound, that his sound concept is so important as to allow him to diverge from the text anywhere the text would force a divergence from his sound concept.

First, the balance is extremely brass heavy. It sounds like the Stuttgart players are using quite heavy, modern, large-bore brass instruments, which tend to completely obliterate the strings. (As a contrast, one calls attention to the outstanding work of the New Queens Hall Orchestra, a band built for Elgar, who use lighter, narrow bore brass instruments which balance effortlessly with the gut strings, French bassoons and wooden flutes favored by the orchestra).

There are a few reasons for this- most modern brass sections generally play without vibrato, particularly in ensemble playing, so they are not modifying their technique or their sound concept from what you would hear from any first tier “modern” orchestra. Most importantly, the “core” of this brass section’s sound remains rather huge, which poses a real problem when playing with this string section.

String players have two tools to increase the size of the core of their sound, the intensity of their contact point between the bow and string (a slower, heavier bow set closer to the bridge produces a sound with a larger core than a faster, lighter bow set further from the bridge), and their vibrato (a wider, fleshier vibrato increases the size of the core of the sound as well as provides halo around the sound). In this performance, not only are the strings using no vibrato, they are also playing with a light, fast bow, quite far from the bridge. One reason groups like the Philadelphia Orchestra in its heyday sounded so good is that the strings and brass made sounds with similar core sizes, but in this group you have a brass section playing with a huge core and the strings playing with almost none. It makes for a shrill texture, but also, much of the time when the brass are playing you cannot hear the strings, and certainly cannot hear them well enough to tell if they’re vibrating or not. In a way, this makes certain problems with the lack of vibrato less apparent, as the problematic passages are simply not heard.

I was quite curious to hear the passage 6 bars before 18 in the first movement to see if the maestro allowed the violins to follow Elgar’s explicit instruction for vibrato, but could not hear them well enough over the brass. That should never be a problem, as Elgar has wisely marked the trumpets, trombones and tuba only forte, while the strings are marked fff. (It’s also a pity the allargando seems to be missing there, which might have given the orchestra a few moments to self-adjust the balance. The poco rit, a small tempo modification following a big one, is, in this instance, suddenly almost twice as slow as the allargando bars, which plow forward at full speed).

The second issue is that the Stuttgart strings players are not simply playing without vibrato, they are also using a vocabulary of bow strokes that would have been completely alien to Elgar(a vocabulary the comes from the world of the pre-Tourte bow- baroque and transition bows are not designed for long, sustained sounds, or sharp, short staccato). Brahms friend and colleague, the violinist Josef Joachim is often cited for his avoidance of vibrato as proof that composers like Brahms and Elgar also disliked vibrato. Aside form the fact that Elgar’s violin muse was Kreisler and not Joachim, the recordings that remain of Joachim show he was every bit the Romantic player- he played with tremendous intensity, deep in the string. In fact, his bowings in Brahms’ music can only be done if you generally play with a slow bow, quite in the string and close the bridge- the opposite of the style of bowing used throughout this performance.

This, dare I say, rather Baroque/cathedral-choir vocabulary of bow strokes and sounds means that many of the nuances of Elgar’s notation are lost, such as  the accents in the opening viola theme, which are turned into swells. At figure 14 in the first movement, the staccato dot on the first note of the theme is played so (forgive my lack of a better term) swishily that when Elgar replaces the piano staccato with a forte tenuto (a very typically Elgarian marking- he often lengthens articulations in crescendos), there is no audible difference at all.

It is not only articulations that suffer. A string player’s most powerful tools for getting louder or softer are contact point (the distance of the bow from the bridge- the closer to the bridge, the more powerful the sound), and arm weight or bow pressure (the heavier the stroke, the louder the sound). A faster bow also makes a louder sound than a slower one, but the difference made by doubling bow speed (keeping the same contact point and bow pressure) is almost negligible compared to the difference made be doubling bow pressure and even more negligible compared to halving the distance of the contact point from the bridge.

The insistence on a baroque sound concept- using very little pressure and playing far from the bridge, and using bow speed as the exclusive means of effecting dynamic changes means the strings have a tiny dynamic range. This is particularly apparent in sequential passages with dramatic dynamic changes, such as the passage from Tempo I after figure 24. In the first 8 eight bars the cellos and basses have the melody, building from pp (ma sonore– how one reconciles sonore with a flautando stroke is beyond me) to f+. Then at 25, the first violins and violas take over, subito pp after the cello and bass f. Not only is there almost no audible difference between the beginning of the cello and bass phrase at pp and it’s arrival at f, turning a dramatic sequence into a simple series of nearly static repetitions, but the violin subito pp sounds barely softer than the forte which precedes it, and of course the crescendo which follows (back up to forte) fails to register at all, let alone the ff at 26.

The main theme of the finale (2nd bar of the Allegro after 111 is played as if the 8ths in the violins had dots instead of dashes. Elgar clearly marks a separate, not hooked bowing (a hooked bowing requires a separation between strokes to create the articulation on the 2nd note, while a separate bowing allows the player to both connect and articulate without separation) and uses a half-slur to tell the players to stay in the string and not make a gap in the sound between the dotted quarter and the eighth. Even his marking of risoluto reminds us that this is not light music, whereas the counter-theme in the cellos is marked with a staccato 8th and a tenuto  (dashed) quarter. To my ear, the staccato 8ths in the celli and the tenuto eighths in the violins sound the same. Also, I can hear no difference between the sf in the middle of the 2nd bar of the phrase, or the sf ten dim in the middle of the fourth bar and the >s on every other beat.

This inability or unwillingness to stay in the string with the bow leads to countless other oversights. At 119 the strings have dashes on the first three notes of the theme, four bars later, those notes are staccato. However, there is a great deal of separation between the dashes (although I think I can hear some effort to make a difference for the dashes, the basic stroke doesn’t allow for it, as they never connect or sustain strokes), and in the fortissimo, the brass are so loud as to nearly obscure the fact that the strings are not really playing very short at all- half-long, half-short at best.

I apologize if I’ve beat this horse to death too long, and let me make absolutely clear that in spite of its many failures to bring to life Elgar’s miraculous text, this is a marvelously technically polished performance of one of the more difficult works in the repertoire- an accomplishment its conductor can rightfully be proud of.

However, as I listened, score in hand, my observations confirmed what I’d already guessed- that this performance is less about avoiding vibrato and more about imposing a sound aesthetic. Such a goal may not, on its face, be a bad thing, but where that imposition forces the performers to ignore, overlook or forsake so many of Elgar’s thousands of tenuto’s, espressivo’s, teneramente’s, sonore’s, dolces, con passione’s and cantabile’s, something is very wrong.

In this performance, an eighth note with a dash may sound the same as one without, or worse yet, even one marked with a dot, because the aesthetic is limited to one species of sound production- everything half-long, half short, with a light, fast bow. To claim that the goal, let alone the result of this performance was “to play as composers intended,” seems to strain credibility. On the other hand, if the goal is to attract attention, well, it obviously attracted mine. If loud is the same dynamic as soft, if short is the same length as long, if ten is the same as >, what is the point? Why would Elgar have made those thousands of carefully judged markings? The basic problem here is not simply the omission of vibrato, but the relentless pursuit of a sound concept that is too one-dimensional and simplistic to allow for a faithful and vibrant recreation of Elgar’s miraculous text.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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8 comments on “Elgar- let’s check the instant replay”

  1. ComposerBastard

    OK, I haven’t had time to read all of this, perhaps later, but do we have a recording comparison w/ New Queens Hall Orchestra? And how much vibrato can they get away with gut strings? I would think the LESS vibrato on a gut, the more organic and grounded the sounds would be in the string sections.

  2. Lisa Hirsch

    Wow, thank you, Ken – this posting is incredibly informative, a great analysis of how string playing technique works in an orchestra.

    I have not had a chance to listen to the playback yet – I note that my past experience with the conductor in question is…well…I found Wagner played on 19th century instruments absolutely gorgeous, with marvelous transparency, but his theories about tempo are bizarre, and, frankly, I think he is a mediocrity as an interpreter. He can execute his obsessions (play everything fast with little or no vibrato) and has little insight into the music.

  3. Kenneth Woods

    A colleague just asked me if I thought the BBC shouldn’t have planned this concert- far from it. Let’s put the ideas and the concepts out there where we can hear them, discuss them, argue about them and learn from them. I certainly learned something from this project, even though I’ve conducted the piece before. R.N. doesn’t seem to mind fuss and hubub, and has been wiling to critque other conductors, so lets have the debate. That’s what the Proms are for.


  4. David Preiser

    Now we’re getting somewhere. You’ve provided some terrific evidence from the standpoint of actually having to physically make these sounds, which is key to this whole puzzle.

    The string player’s technique on modern equipment is just not the same as on period instruments, and playing styles began to change when the equipment improved, not just when Pathé started recording music. Your point about staying on the string is particularly relevant to that idea. It’s one thing to clean up articulation and all that (which we all approve of), but Norrington’s approach just seems to be to add all these artificial effects to replace what the music and the instruments want to do naturally.

    (NB: Thanks for the kind words and link)

  5. Robert Berger

    I’m a child of my time; I grew up accustomed to string vibrato. It just doesn’t
    sound right to my ears without it. Although I’m a former horn player, vibrato is to
    string playing what bubbles are to champagne. Norrington’s performances
    are like flat champagne.
    And I could never stand the sound of gut strings. The sound has usually been
    dreadful ; a nasal, pinched wheeze.
    The old brass instruments also have an unplaesantly raspy sound to me.
    It’s fine for Norrington to experiment, but I can’t stand his arrogance in proclaiming that he’s found the one and only right way to do music; there is no such

  6. Zoltan

    Just to add two bits of info here (as someone who has been to performances of the orchestra under Norrington):
    – In the Adagietto of Mahler’s 5th, there’s also a vibrando in the score, which Norrington did observe (it wasn’t very pronounced, just a slight vibrato from what I can remember)
    – The fiddler solo in the second movement of Mahler’s 4th, played “normal” vibrato throughout.

    Otherwise, great insight and understanding of string playing and observing the score Ken! I know that life is too short for such elaborate posts and I applaude you for writing one!

    As someone who says “call off the performance, let’s rehearse Haydn”, next season Norrington will have Haydn’s London Symphonies in focus. Perhaps I will (finally?) get away from the (post-)romantics and “get” Haydn? 😉

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