To tremble or not to tremble? Giving up bad vibrations

Sir Roger Norrington has spent his life as a conductor in pursuit of authentic performance, in works from Bach to Schoenberg. But has his campaign against vibrato gone too far? He talks to Rob Cowan

Friday 02 August 2002 00:00

A question: what do Sir Roger Norrington's performances of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Schoenberg and Vaughan Williams have in common? Answer: an absence of vibrato, the sensual shimmering that wires music to the heartstrings.

Or does it? Are we better off without vibrato? The critical jury seems fairly confident in the case of Baroque repertoire where, years ago, Sir Roger's pioneering work with the London Classical Players made Bachian counterpoint sleek and transparent. Nowadays Norrington's tremor-free line reaches all the way from early music to Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht and Vaughan Williams's Third, prompted in part by the great Joseph Joachim, who once maintained that any violinist who plays with a consistent vibrato "cannot play the instrument".

"But vibrato in Gypsy music?" exclaims Norrington excitedly. "Lay it on me! And jazz? I'm up for that, too. I want a clarinet with vibrato. Then there's Mahler's First Symphony, where I use vibrato in the Klezmer sections of the third movement. But the rest of Mahler sounds really fantastic if it's played the way it must have been when the composer's brother-in-law, the violinist Arnold Rosé, was concertmaster at the Vienna Philharmonic. Rosé, who was very sparing in his use of vibrato, also led at Bayreuth, so we can guess how Wagner must have sounded, too."

Yet surely vibrato is among the modern fiddle player's core expressive devices. "It's almost become like that," retorts Norrington, himself an ex-violinist, over breakfast in the picturesque German town of Würzburg. "When I pick up a violin, my hand instinctively trembles. Even my kids say to me, 'Dad, what are you doing?'" He tells me that vibrato as we understand it now didn't actually reach the Vienna Philharmonic until the ageing Rosé was banished by the Nazis and replaced by an earnestly vibrating younger man, the late Wolfgang Schneiderhan. Berlin was similarly chaste, but Norrington's intention is less to revisit the past than to "make it new" for the present and, more importantly, for the future.

Later this month he leads the 50-year-old Camerata Salzburg at a Proms presentation of Mozart's Posthorn Serenade and Beethoven's Violin Concerto. Norrington's relationship with the Camerata intensified in 1997 when the orchestra's long-term maestro Sándor Végh died and he was approached to take over. "We quickly became friends and they were evidently won over," he says. "When it came to their playing style, I chipped away at things gradually. They'd never played without vibrato for a whole movement before." Rather than feel an absence of something (a sort of "music minus vibrato") the idea is to understand how, with the right phrasing, tempo or emphases, great music sounds more noble when it's tonally pure. It's an interesting viewpoint, one that a youthful, responsive Camerata Salzburg takes in its stride.

But were there any negative reactions to Norrington's method within the ranks? "I don't recall any great problems," he says, "though there may have been the odd mumbling if I went away for a week. The fact is that they asked me to be their chief conductor, so they must have thought the risk was worth taking. I guess they could hear how pretty it sounded."

A couple of months ago that "pretty" sound resonated beyond the regal portals of Würzburg's Prince Bishop's Palace, with its ceiling frescoes by Tiepolo and torch-lit gardens. Mozart and Beethoven came freshly to the boil with scarcely a prompt from Norrington, save for the odd guiding cue. By now the Camerata fully understands his drift, his fondness for sudden crescendos or diminuendos. He merely advises them to "bow on the string, play notes shorter. I lean forward and they all crescendo. You can make up as you go along". After a while everything becomes so natural that all it takes to shade or inflect the line is a single, unrehearsed flick of the wrist. Norrington has genuine stage charisma.

But what happens when he collaborates with a soloist whose training and interpretative preferences are rooted in a more conservative tradition? The violinist Joshua Bell, for example, who will play Beethoven's Concerto at the Proms and who recently recorded the work with Norrington and the Camerata for Sony. "I'd played the Beethoven with Josh before – which I presume is why he asked us to accompany him. So there was obviously enough understanding there. I encouraged him to opt for simplicity and, to some extent, choose 'no vibrato'. And he would sometimes tease the other players, say things like 'Come on – use more vibrato!'

"There was a sort of playful dialogue going on; but I think he's very happy with the way it's come out. Between us we were exploring little details that come from a real knowledge of the piece, getting it into the right place. The more you go back with music from, say, 1900, the more you find humility. That's the great thing about Bach, for example: he had a fantastic, extravagant technique, but he used it with such humility. It's got grandeur for sure, but if you push the grandeur element, you push it out of shape, overdress it. And yet if you keep it simple – and if you know early instruments they really show you how to do that – then the effect is entirely different."

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Prior to playing the Beethoven Concerto with Bell, Norrington had performed it with Thomas Zehetmair. "We learned a tremendous amount about how it might go. He showed us, and we showed him." But where others might insist on using period instruments, Norrington is just as happy to employ period playing styles on modern instruments. He even talks about playing Bach and Handel on modern instruments, provided the style is right. "It's one of my missions to make this way of playing freely available to any intelligent musician," he says. "When I played Mendelssohn at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw it opened up a whole new sound world. You see, we don't need early instruments, because we've already got them! Most of the quality instruments people use predate the music they play on them. I'm rather mischievously trying to do the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment out of a job. I actually say that to them sometimes – though in reality what they're doing is a lot more specialist." Still, the idea is to drag historically informed performance practice away from the "period instrument" ghetto so that a wider catchment of musicians can learn to appreciate this invigorating "new" sound.

But not everyone is convinced. While Norrington thinks of expressive vibrato as a tiresome 20th-century affectation, certainly in 18th- and 19th-century repertoire, a good many listeners would still rather hear their music "with" than "without". Why? "It's partly fashion," Norrington insists. "People want music gift- wrapped. They want it to sound grand. If you make a big 'trembling' effect on the note, people think you're big, too. It's like a balloon: you put your name on a little balloon; you blow it up as big as you can, and then your name is huge!" He claims that we're too often missing out on what he calls music's "essential nobility". "That's what they all talk about – the noble, pure cantilena. That's what Joachim talks about in his violin book, and I'm sure that Brahms felt the same way."

Before Norrington joined them, Camerata Salzburg had never played a Brahms or a Schumann symphony. Now they have. There's even a slimly attenuated Schumann Second on CD (part of an all-Camerata three-disc set on the Glissando label). It's like meeting someone you haven't seen for years after they've been on a stringent health kick. Same face, just less to hug.

Norrington and the Camerata Salzburg perform at the Proms on 21 August (020-7589 8212; The concert will be broadcast live by Radio 3

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