Portamento: Expressive Indulgence, Structural Tool, or Both?

Portamento, a vocal glide between notes, has slowly been coming back into fashion in string playing, after quite a long period of unfashionability starting in around the 1950s. It never truly disappeared, of course, so it is easy to exaggerate the extent of these style changes, especially when nostalgia for a lost golden age is concerned.

As usual, rather than a case of a simple on/off switch, it’s probably more accurate to think of this as a series of complex shifts in the balance of how sliding is used, how it’s valued, and (therefore) how it’s understood. It’s common for commentators to trace changes in vibrato usage precisely like this: the simple version is that vibrato was deployed rather selectively in the past, and only later – well into the twentieth century – did it become a ‘core’ component of sound production. Changes in the use of portamento seem to go in the opposite direction: it appears to have been considered a "primary" option for musicians, integrated with the way in which their minds imagined certain melodic intervals (and their contexts).

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The Klingler Quartet - Making Sense of Op.127 (Part 2)

In the last blog I looked at the first few bars of the Klinglers’ Op.127; I’m going to stick with the same recording in this one, and talk about the way they handle the whole opening section. I’m especially interested here in the relationship between the structures we see in the score, and the structures that we hear.

It’s a bit of an open question at the moment as to how good the brain is at perceiving large-scale structure in music. A listener obviously experiences music as a series of moment-to-moment progressions, but can also make connections between passages that have been heard already, and generate expectations of what’s going to happen next. Reading a score, though, is a rather different experience...

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The Klingler Quartet - Making Sense of Op.127

I’ve recently been spending a lot of time with the brilliant recording of Beethoven Op.127 made by the Klingler Quartet in the mid-1930s. Karl Klingler was one of Joachim’s favourite pupils, and so the quartet’s numerous recordings are certainly historically significant, but I’m going to postpone talking about lineages and ‘traditions’ for now, and instead look at their Op.127 in detail with half an eye on the familiar ‘urtext’ ideal.

The beginning of 127 is famous for making very little sense to a listener who hasn’t already seen the score: if you don’t know how it’s written down, you’re fairly unlikely to be able to work it out. The marking at the beginning is maestoso, and the music is very often described as being like pillars. A quick survey of Spotify and YouTube confirms that this is also just “how it sounds”: every single recording I could find approaches the opening in exactly this way...

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