Saturday, February 10, 2007

Of Nostalgia and Purity

Growing up I tried to get my hands on every recording by notable violinists ever made. There were very few reissues of old recordings, but my French trained teacher Arno Granroth had an amazing collection of old 78s which I then transferred to tape. In the process I even learned how to eliminate much of the hiss and other surface noise of those discs, many of which were quite worn out from decades of listening. Perhaps the most amazing recording was the one young Jacques Thibaud made of two then-popular pieces, d’Ambrosio’s 'Canzonetta' and Gabriel-Marie’s 'La Cinquantaine'. This was made before the vacuum tube and amplification were available, and the violinist stood inches from the microphone, accompanied by a brass band, the only combination loud enough to be picked up by the same mike.

Since he was still playing in spite of his advanced age, I often heard Mischa Elman’s recordings on the radio, and naturally bought anything of his available at my favorite record store in Helsinki, Westerlund. As he played somewhat slower than most ‘hot’ names of that time, Elman’s playing was considered old-fashioned by many. In the Tchaikovsky violin concerto first movement he suddenly takes a much slower tempo, exactly in half speed, in a passage where everyone needs to slow down somewhat. This hardly can be because he wasn’t able to play it faster, but probably because the composer had wanted that. Elman was the oldest of Auer’s students and likely the first one to play the piece. What impressed me the most in his artistry was the impeccable intonation and sense of style, not to mention the big tone that was evident even on recordings. He was still performing in the early 1960s and it is said that even then no other living violinist could produce such a powerful, focused sound on the G-string.

Luckily by now most of the old recordings have been reissued on compact disks. One can actually witness the development of violin playing from Sarasate and Ysaÿe to modern violinists. Listening to historical recordings should be made mandatory for anyone taking the violin seriously, just like knowing art history and examining paintings by master painters is essential to an art student, even if he or she ends up filling the canvas with squares and circles, or cow dung like in the famous exhibit in New York some years ago. Great many releases feature Elman, from concertos to Jewish pieces and Fritz Kreisler’s little jewels. Of the latter, it is interesting how Elman treats 'Preludium and Allegro' and 'Sicilienne and Rigaudon' as if they were late baroque pieces by Pugnani and Francoeur. After the violinist learned these miniature masterpieces, it would take a couple decades before Kreisler would admit that they were actually his own creations.

Earlier this morning I gave a student the Kreisler arrangement of Dvořák’s 'Slavonic Dance' in e minor to learn. Of this piece, Elman’s recording has always been my favorite. It is quite slow, but immaculate in style and the intonation in the difficult double stops is simply breathtaking. We call it intonation, but in my native Finnish the term is musical cleanliness or purity, a far better description. This brings me to another topic: How is it possible that master fiddlers of the past with gut strings, or even gut core strings, such as Pirastro Eudoxa or Kaplan Golden Spiral, were able to play so well in tune? These strings would always drop in pitch and the soloist would turn his back to the audience during every tutti to tune them back up again. I particularly remember Zino Francescatti playing the Sibelius concerto and at the end of the slow movement the high natural harmonic shocked every listener for being a half step flat, yet everything else, double stops included, had been absolutely faultless. Before the introduction of Dominants and other synthetic core strings that keep the pitch stable, a violinist had to constantly adjust to the pitch discrepancies. A few people, namely soloists from the Soviet Union, used all-steel strings, but that was an exception.

In this country, on the East Coast, a terrible habit was formed some time in the middle of last century. A famous teacher, who wasn’t playing any more, decided that the students, who were playing solos with orchestra, would have to tune sharp to the orchestra’s pitch. That way they would either sound somewhat sharp (which many ‘knowledgeable’ critics praise for being in tune), or if they happen to play a bit flat, it would sound just right. This practice stuck, and today it is hard to find a violinist who tunes correctly and yet plays with excellent intonation. To listeners and orchestra musicians this sends a message that one shouldn’t care about the agreed pitch, especially after they read rave reviews of the performance. Naturally the string players, especially the first violins who can hear the soloist well, intuitively start adjusting their own pitch to match the star, yet most of the orchestra continues in the agreed-upon one. Even young students are encouraged by their fame-seeking teachers to tune sharp, in addition to doing the ‘right moves’ in front of an audience. Gone are the days when the soloist would stand there proudly and let his or her playing do the dancing. Instead a young teenager tunes his/her violin to 445 or above, yet manages to play flat, and tries to do choreographed dance even in a slow, deep and noble piece. Such teaching preferences will simply destroy a young ear and make music with its phrasing, tone and other truly important factors secondary to a cheap vaudeville act.