When you think of your ideal violin sound – one you would be happy to be stranded on a desert island with for all eternity – what comes to your mind’s ear? I was brought up on the golden caramel of Itzhak Perlman and the brassy perfection of Jascha Heifetz. Later I discovered the more fragile beauty of Fritz Kreisler and Joseph Szigeti. In recent years, it seems that sound worlds have become more diverse and even extreme, with airier, delicate colours and textures at one end and sustained intensity at the other. How have these developments come about and what are the implications?
Perhaps the greatest influence has been the period performance movement, as violinist and pedagogue Antje Weithaas explains: ‘It started to change with historically informed players and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. You could hear how it was possible to play in a different way that was more fitting to the style. It gives us so many more colours and possibilities of expression. Every composer needs a different sound, a different approach. Our job is to be so flexible that we can adjust to the language of the composer.’
There seems to be a more exploratory sense of what sound can be. Viktoria Mullova, who was brought up in the Russian school but now crosses between Baroque and modern set-up says, ‘There are so many nuances and subtleties in music making. It’s about pressure, speed of the bow, how much vibrato you use, how fast vibrato is, how much you turn the bow, how much hair goes on the string. There are so many little things to play with. When I practise, I experiment and make the phrase alive and then I change my mind the next day. It’s a constant change and it’s much more interesting.’
The best period performance bands and players have brought a fresh sound to composers we thought we knew, through understanding how the original instruments were played. Inevitably, however, some people have taken it too far. Alfred Brendel describes the extreme version: ‘It is distinguished by very little vibrato, if any, producing a painfully artificial, lifeless sound on long, sustained notes, averse to any cantabile. For quite a few players this has become standard practice in pianissimo sections. The sound, instead of ominous or mysterious, becomes dead. What is lost in this kind of playing is a great deal of warmth, colour, character and nuance. Until the day before yesterday, string players as well as singers made use of various kinds of vibrato – faster and slower, wider and narrower. Fast vibrato seems to have become extinct.’
This style is not even historically accurate, as Robin Michael, cellist in period orchestra Les Siècles, points out: ‘People have this idea that period instrument specialists play with no vibrato, but it’s not true. The most important document we have is the treatise from Leopold Mozart. He talks about vibrato as being first and foremost to help the resonance of stopped notes and says that it can also be used as an expressive tool. There’s still this idea that when you play Bach, you shouldn’t use vibrato. It’s nonsense. Sound should never be dead unless it’s a very specific effect that the composer wants.’
At the other end of the sonic spectrum is a sound that can be too present. Violinist Levon Chilingirian, whose quartet celebrated 50 years in 2021, describes the trend in chamber music: ‘There’s a much more liberal use of the bow, and a sort of wall-to-wall legato, a sound that doesn’t breathe, which has become more prevalent.’ He relates this to the necessity of filling bigger halls, particularly for quartets who might be more at home in smaller venues: ‘The more famous a group becomes the larger the halls they are touring in, and they have to develop a bigger way of playing, which goes against the music of the great masters. It’s not designed for these huge halls that we play in. If you’re spending most of your time playing in halls that don’t help you, perhaps you are forced to develop ways of playing which are almost unnatural.’
Is it possible that some of the more extreme new sound worlds aren’t only driven by musical considerations? Brendel suggests so: ‘There has been a very strong generation of mainly female violinists and brilliant string quartets with whom to compete would have been a tall order. Why not do something essentially different? Something the older generations of players have not done? And isn’t it desirable for the younger players to present a markedly different approach anyway? There is the danger of mistaking musical performance for a series of fashion shows where the newest brands are presented and eagerly absorbed.’
With streaming services and the internet offering us constant, unlimited choice, maybe there are commercial needs, too. ‘For younger generations,’ reasons Weithaas, ‘it’s very hard to find a place in the music market, so they try to be extreme.’
Chilingirian understands the urge to be different, and doesn’t mind as long as it is done well: ‘It’s natural for the young ones to say, “Let’s do something new, let’s do it our own way.” If they are musical, whatever they do, even if it’s weird, I would respect it because I can feel that they feel the music.’
To what extent is sound defined by teaching? Chilingirian reflects: ‘I thought I could recognise the Menuhin sound instantly, until the first time I heard a recording of Enescu play, and then I realised Menuhin sounded a lot like Enescu, and Enescu was his teacher.’ Having said that, he recalls his own teacher, Manoug Parikian: ‘He managed to produce me, Irvine Arditti and Monica Huggett, and look how differently we turned out. He was saying the same thing to all of us. A good teacher tries to develop different talents in different directions, and not to impose their own personality.’
This is also something Weithaas tries to achieve in her teaching: ‘Very often, young players start to play too loudly, with too much pressure, because they want to create a big sound, but for everyone, there is a way of producing a natural sound. It has to do with the right arm, but also the position of the instrument, the use of breathing and the whole body. If they achieve the right balance, everyone can create their own unique sound.’
There are gaps in today’s teaching, though, according to Robin Michael: ‘People have lost the art of how to play proper legato with the bow, which is why they rely on the left hand. There’s so little attention paid to how we construct and inflect phrasing with the bow. People often fall back on thinking of the long line and vibrating on every note to get to the end point, ignoring all the different harmonic inflections. These things aren’t talked about enough at conservatoire.’
As for my own love of Kreisler? For some, that type of sound is now seen as archaic. ‘I hear discussions about “beautiful violin sound”, but what is that?’ asks Weithaas. ‘Nobody can explain it. Is it what we have in our ears from the past? Is it Kreisler? It was beautiful for him and for his time, but is it always fitting to the pieces?’
Michael agrees, and looks to something much older: ‘People talk of having an expensive sound, but I don’t care about that. The golden age for me would have been people like Spohr, Romberg and Duport, not the post-Second World War Kreisler school. I love listening to Kreisler, but he initiated the style of vibrating on every note, and it would have been alien for Brahms to hear his music played like that.’
Chilingirian disputes the idea that older generations of players paid no respect to the past: ‘I would contest the fact that the great older quartets were not as technically or as musically good. They were just as good and much more musically informed than many of today’s groups.’ He also suggests that some extremes may sometimes be a distraction: ‘A really original musical personality of the Amadeus Quartet or Fritz Kreisler now seems to be substituted with false musical statements, with a lot of musicians – including quartets, but others as well – pulling things about too much.’
So it seems that along with the sonic changes brought about by historical awareness a schism has developed: on one hand, a belief that the ideal sound is relative, defined by the composer and their era; on the other, that great players can and should have their own personality, which comes through their sound. An analogy might be the difference between great actors who carefully transform themselves into each role through their gestures, voice, make-up and even weight, and those who invariably look and sound the same – their personalities are compelling, yet they are never not themselves.
Maybe Kreisler playing Beethoven does sound like Kreisler playing Kreisler. I will always love his sound, whatever he plays, just as much as I love hearing good period players don their mantels. I hope there will always be room for both approaches.