February 3, 2010

Nic on performing Brahms: Pt. 3

So we now know about how Nic researched contemporary performances of Brahms' work and we also know a little about the instruments that were likely used to play his works around the time they were composed. Let's find out about some of the smaller details about the style that Philharmonia Baroque musicians might be playing in in February:

Here are the first of a few thoughts I have about we may play Brahms in February:


We have the evidence of Joachim’s recordings that he perhaps used relatively little vibrato (the oscillation of pitch which instruments can produce to imitate the sound of human singing – learn more about wrist vibrato and arm vibrato). However, Fanny Davies, who heard him play the Third Piano Trio in 1887, noted that in one passage at least (marked espressivo) he used vibrato to great effect. On the other hand, as early as 1863, cellist David Popper was both praised and lampooned for his continuous vibrato. He played frequently with Brahms after 1886. Mühlfled also used vibrato on the clarinet. However, it is important to remember that these players were soloists and that orchestral players used much less, if any, vibrato. Indeed, the Vienna Philharmonic preserved an almost vibrato-less style until the Second World War. The orchestra will try to copy this with the exception of notes marked <>.


Already in 1811, composer Antonio Salieri complained of Viennese orchestral string players using portamenti (sliding from one pitch to another). One can hear in Joachim’s recordings that he employed portamento as a soloist. His own editions and his treatise on violin playing (Violinschule) contain many examples of this practice. Of special interest for our concert is his edition of the Brahms Violin Concerto, in which he provided fingerings throughout and indicated plenty of portamenti. Early orchestral recordings offer clear evidence of the widespread use of this embellishment. Be prepared for lots of them in our concert!

Flute treatises for the pre-Boehm flute have fingering charts for portamenti. The increasing amount of keywork on later instruments made it harder to glide from note to note, but John Clinton’s Flute Treatise (A Code of Instructions for the Fingering of the Equisonant Flute by the Inventor and Patentee, 1860) shows that the practice did continue into the second half of the 19th century. As he wrote himself: "This ornament is effected by gradually drawing or sliding the fingers off the holes, instead of raising them in the usual manner; by this means is obtained all the shades of sound between the notes, so that the performer may pass from one note to another, as it were, imperceptibly; it produces a pleasing effect, when sparingly used. It is denoted by the mark [shown above the notes above]. The fingers must be drawn off the holes in a line towards the palm of the hand; the employment of the crescendo with the glide heightens the effect."


Studies of the old orchestral material used by the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics show that more notes were played in one bow stroke than now. This means that the overall volume must have been less. The orchestra will try this. British audiences in the early part of the 20th century were astonished by the unanimity of bowing when they heard the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras for the first time.

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