Every violinist ought to carefully study Leopold Auer's 99-page little book "VIOLIN PLAYING As I Teach It." Although it probably is a product of a ghost writer, it makes a terrific read, especially in the chapters that discuss vibrato, portamento, nuance and style. Having heard recordings of so many Auer’s students, it is hard to realize this great teacher actually hated both glissandi and continuous vibrato, dumping them in the same basket of special effects.
"Like the portamento, the vibrato is primarily a means used to heighten effect, to embellish or beautify a singing passage or tone. Unfortunately, both singers and players of string instruments frequently abuse as they do the portamento, and by so doing they have called into being a plague of the most inartistic nature, one to which ninety out of every hundred vocal and instrumental soloists fall victim. -- Resorting to the vibrato is an ostrich-like endeavor to conceal bad tone production and intonation from oneself and from others not only halts progress in the improvement of one's fault, but is out and out dishonest artistically. -- No, the vibrato is an effect, an embellishment; it can lend a touch of divine pathos to the climax of a phrase or the course of a passage, but only if the player has cultivated a delicate sense of proportion in the use of it.”
Interestingly, this book was published in 1929 when most soloists already were busy doing what Auer advised them not to. Although Ysayë was using a small, tight vibrato much of the time, it wasn’t until Fritz Kreisler that the world heard a new sound. Around the time the book came out, the violin world was divided into two camps, those for the vibrato and those against. Eventually the new sound won and all the famed soloists representing the old camp fell out of favor and were simply forgotten. Vasa Prihoda, anyone?
In orchestras the ban on vibrato lived a lot longer, like it did (and still does) with choral singing. I can remember old orchestra violinists from my childhood who would instantly frown if they heard someone vibrate. Having a father who also was a conductor had its perks and it meant I was able to join his orchestra in the back of the second violins at the age of 5, far before my feet could reach the ground. I befriended many outstanding musicians who traveled to my home town to help out in concerts. The principal oboe of the Helsinki Philharmonic even taught me circular breathing before I was 10 and I watched him make reeds very carefully. Quite a few orchestra violinists had worked in prewar Germany and their training was with the traditions of the old school.
Of course as a youngster I was very impressionable. I must have been 12 or 13 when my father took me to hear Zino Francescatti play during the Sibelius Week in Helsinki. We sat in the front row in the old University auditorium, less than 15 feet from this wonderful soloist performing both the Beethoven and Sibelius concerti during two nights. My mother’s plans for my business career were put aside and I decided to become a violinist instead, which obviously gave great joy to my father. Now, Francescatti was a vibratissimo man and I wanted to have a sound just as good as his and did actually a commendable job at it. Even the sound I heard in Heifetz’s master class was no match to what I had witnessed years before. Of course I loved the sound and style of Kreisler and Thibaud whose playing I knew extremely well from the old 78s my teacher made me listen to. But I was still hypnotized by Zino’s extreme vibrato.
It took a long time for me to understand that constant wide vibrato was not necessarily a magic bullet. I got hold of a recording of the Franck Sonata, played by Thibaud. There he uses almost no vibrato at all during the first movement. It was eye-opening, partly because the music sounded so magical and partly because the composer must have meant it to be played in that way. All of a sudden I realized there was a world of music that I hadn’t really been exposed to, traditions that went back a couple hundred years. Covering everything with never-ending vibrato was like pouring Chinese sweet and sour sauce on every dish of food: it makes everything taste the same.
Although I am no great fan of “authentic” baroque performances, mainly because so many people involved in those are simply not very good, I still applaud the effort of bringing music back to what it was supposed to be. Also, dropping the pitch of an A to 415 is phony: the actual pitch has been all over the map. 415 is comfortable because people with perfect pitch can tolerate it, by transposing everything down a half-step. When the tuning is in between, we could as well be on Mars, as we hear music but it doesn’t really make any sense. I still have nightmares trying to play with the great romantic organ of my home town’s church. It was tuned to 435 and torture for me.
However, many attempts of recreating the sound Mozart and Beethoven had in mind has been enlightening. Old style instruments, although modern in construction, have such different tone color. No ear plugs are ever needed and even the most delicate inner lines can be heard. Even a modern orchestra should with relative ease be temporarily converted into a “period” sound-alike. Unfortunately, if half the players try the “new” style and half don’t, the result is disastrous.