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Monday, 20 February 2012

That very vocal sound

HOW CAN YOU TELL? part three.

Judging a violin performance. A violin has a range of nearly four octaves which – believe me – goes from very deep to very high. The bow’s function is obvious, otherwise notes are created by stopping the four strings with the finger tips against the 27 cm long fingerboard (usually ebony). There are no frets (raised bars as on a guitar) to indicate the stopping points and the process gets harder as the notes rise in pitch because the stops get closer and closer together.

An imperfectly stopped note is blurred and the violinist’s intonation is said to be suffering. It happens to famous players. Reviews of Yehudi Menuhin’s later recordings regularly referred to faulty intonation though his interpretations might well be praised. Critics are less forgiving about the intonation of younger players these days and most of us can expect to hear sharply defined notes when the violin is being played staccato – ie, where the notes are separate and not blended together

There is of course no substitute for familiarity with a piece, especially works for the unaccompanied violin. And especially with Bach. Some works attempt the impossible. Denied the left-hand accompaniment to a melody that a piano allows, composers for violin sometimes write chunks of melody alternating with chunks of accompaniment and expect the listener’s ear to “combine” these two voices on what is essentially a one-voice instrument. It works but it helps if you are aware that this is the aim.

Think of the violin as a voice rather than an instrument. Are you being “sung” to?

In violin concerti keep an eye on the first violins (to the left of the conductor) and especially the leader. Their reaction may indicate a great performance by the soloist.


  1. Precision work on violin is commonplace now, technique is drilled into players from a very early age. I definitely agree with you - what makes a technically great performance something more is when the performer makes her instrument sing. That's magic!

  2. Julia: A week or so ago we heard the Tchaikovsky violin concerto by a Japanese woman (name now forgotten). Far too showy a piece for my tastes and yet it was easy to see (a) she was note perfect, and (b) her performance was masterly.

  3. Do you have a favorite violin concerto? Brahms is masterful and I do also like Tchaikovsky as I've played parts of it (all that time spent on a piece means you either hate or love it). The Bruch though, that's my top choice.

  4. Julia: I've been waiting for someone to ask me that question for years, and it took me years to arrive at the decision. I hope it's not going to sound pretentious but the answer's Sibelius.

    There's also the matter of whose performance. The first version we owned, an LP, was David Oistrakh (orchestra forgotten). Eventually it got so battered I bought a CD (Perlman, Previn, Pittsburgh SO) and thus didn't bother with David when I did my enormous LP to CD conversion. Now I wish I had. What seems essential in retrospect is a Slavic voice from the violin even though the Finns aren't Slavs. Only Slavs seem able to to flirt with that barrier between pain and pleasure that Sibelius requires. Oh Julia, I can hear it now in my head but Mrs LdP is still abed and although the Perlman is a file on my computer it would be too noisy to play it.

    I'm glad to see you only played parts of the Tchaikovsky. Whatever my feelings towards it, it is clearly a virtuoso piece and I realise there's a question I've never put to you: how would you rate your violin playing? What level?

  5. When I was in school I was quite decent, but I lost my chops when I developed tendonitis and couldn't pick up even a pencil for six months. I've never been able to play for longer than 30 minutes since then, which relegated me to amateur status and saved me for the business world ;-).

    Sibelius' dark tones matches Oistrakh's breadth of sound so well. Just listened to Oistrakh and the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra on Youtube, and am struck as always by the way he pulls sound out of his instrument. It's almost as if he has double the hair on his bow as anyone else.

  6. Julia: Oh gosh. You've never given me even a hint of that beforehand. I suppose that does leave most quartets; I hope the little breaks between movements provide blessed surcease for those tendons. Your news becomes even more poignant given that yesterday afernoon I was revising Blest Redeemer (thinking gloomily of reconstructing it) but sustained by good ol' Itzhak with the partitas and sonatas. Boy was he singing and he reminded me of you. But then came the little weevil of doubt. I don't suppose the scores are over-endowed with interpretive instructions and I wondered if Bach really intended them to be so musical. In fact the fifth (?) came with the chaconne attached and the contrast with the performance I recently posted about (Vengerov at Auschwitz) couldn't have been more marked: IP as lyrical as Strauss's Four Last Songs, MV as spiky as the Berg concerto. I asked myself whether I should (Morally? Musically? Intellectually?) be able to enjoy both these extremes. Fact is I do.

    "Pulls sound out of his instrument". "Double the hair". As I've said before, you should be writing Tone Deaf. But given your family needs to eat, I am satisfied if I can squeeze comments like that out of you every so often. You do me much honour, PP.