A Glass of Chianti

Friday, October 07, 2005

Vibrato is verboten

Or, at least that's what most clarinet teachers will tell you. I mean, they'll make sure to say it's OK if you're playing jazz, but you should never, never, never, never use it when you're playing real music.

If you ever find yourself in a bar with a clarinetist and you really want to see sparks fly (and you don't want to go for the easy "What do you think of Richard Stolzman?" kill) just ask if the Copland concerto should be played with vibrato. Seriously. It would probably be the most entertaining 15 minutes of your life.

We all have our own pet reasons for our stance. Some people say that the clarinet tone is just too pure for vibrato to be of any use. Others will tell you that overtone series of the clarinet is fragile** and vibrato exacerbates the problem. There are people who dislike vibrato because they feel that it is mainly employed to cover up deficiencies in a player's tuning. Why clarinetists feel the need to give a bunch of reasons for a subjective evaluation is beyond me.

In any case, the "top five" at About Last Night has an interesting little inclusion this week. (Not that I was tipped off to it, or anything...) You see, Reginald Kell is something of, well, the Robert Bork of the clarinet world. He is divisive. He's amazingly talented. He is incredibly influential. Admitting to the wrong people that you like Reginald Kell is a big deal. Why? Well, for one, Reginald Kell played with vibrato.

And it's not just an understated vibrato some of the time. No, Reginald Kell flaunts his use of vibrato in everything - even Mozart. What's more is that Kell does crazy things with interpretations. When he's a soloist, he freely decides when he's going to take the tempo of the rest of his group and when he's just going to go off and do whatever he likes. (Rubato? Fancy word for thief!) Kell was a madman. Sometimes, these experiments in tempo were novelty for the sake of being novel. They just didn't work. But, when he got it right, there was no way a listener could ever hear a passage being played any other way and have it sound "right."

This next part will shock the heck out of my college friends (and expose me as a complete chawbacon), so I'll suggest they stop reading: I'm very much in the Reginald Kell fanclub. (Yeah, I know you'll take away my clarinetist credentials, the card's already in the mail.) What I admire about Kell's playing is that he always had conviction about what he was doing. It may not always work out, but when I'm listening, I'm always drawn in. I want to know what is going to happen next and where Kell is going to take me. It's an incredibly seductive style of playing. It's not for everyone, but I like it, and I don't care what that means to my clarinetist brethren. ;)

I'm not saying that I don't love Frederick Thurston or the absolutely wonderful Thea King or any of the other long line of English clarinet rockstars, I just like Kell, too. It may be unsophisticated, but sometimes taste is.

*Ohhhh, we could all have fun if more people played the clarinet and hung out in bars. Can you imagine?!
**Heard in college. At a great music school. From a professor. Even though I asked a lot of questions, I still have no idea what he meant.