Philip Hensher: My take on the great vibrato debate

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The Independent Online

Roger Norrington's performance of Elgar's first symphony at the Proms created some uneasy mutterings among the audience. And he has said that, if the orchestra agrees, he is going to perform the composer's first Pomp and Circumstance march at the Last Night in the same way. In the symphony, Norrington asked the orchestra not to use vibrato, a technique undoubtedly used in performances of Elgar since recordings began, and probably since the piece was first performed. Norrington, however, said that for the first time, the symphony had been performed "as its composer intended".

Vibrato has turned into a huge battleground in the performance of music. In brief, it is that tender, throbbing noise in a sustained note – it isn't, contrary to common belief, a variation in pitch, but only in pressure. You can see it being produced in the oscillations of a violinist's hand or a cellist's elbow. In a voice, it is the difference between early Joni Mitchell and Montserrat Caballé.

The trouble is, it hasn't always been there. It's pretty clear that it didn't become consistently applied until the 20th century – only then did composers start asking for passages to be played, for expressive reasons, without vibrato, as though that was the norm.

Even then, it wasn't universal across the orchestra, or in every region. To an English ear, the wonderful heavy oboe vibrato in the old Vienna Philharmonic is very startling – you can hear it in Kleiber's great Fledermaus recording. And I remember being shocked by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra in the 1980s; it blasted a Sheffield audience out of its seats with a "Pathétique" in which every single member of the brass section seemed to be vibrato-ing like mad. I'd never heard anything so massive, vulgar and magnificent.

Around the same time, the authentic music movement was progressing forwards in time. The Baroque had been removed from the standard repertoire of the symphony orchestra, and string sections were learning to stop their vibrato in first Mozart, then Beethoven. When the approach started being applied to the Romantics, people began to grumble. Were standard orchestras to be left with nothing to play but music written since 1950, with Boulez and Britten and Bernstein?

It starts to seem like it. Norrington's experiment was interesting, but odd and surely not entirely authentic. We have recordings conducted by Elgar that seem to use a degree not just of vibrato, but of portamento, or sliding from note to note, far in excess of modern taste. It is unlikely that the practice changed so radically between Elgar's writing the symphony and his recording it 20 years later.

No, I suspect that "authenticity" and "clarity", served up as faithful to the composer's intentions, reflects only our personal taste. Nothing could be more up-to-date than Norrington's clear, lucid sound in the most unlikely works. One contemporary of Elgar's, Richard Strauss, once complained to an American orchestra that they were "playing all the notes". You can hear all the notes in these vibrato-less performances. Whether that takes us any closer to Elgar is quite another matter.

Thomas Sutcliffe is away. Philip Hensher's novel, 'The Northern Clemency', is longlisted for the Booker Prize