Archive for August, 2014

The Vexed Question of Vibrato

Sooner or later, a clarinettist will begin to wonder about vibrato.

For almost all other wind instruments, the question of vibrato (“to be or not to be?”) is almost self-referential: of course one uses vibrato, it’s an essential attribute of the instrument’s tone colour. In some cases (hrrrrmsaxophone!), it plays a vital role in centring pitch. Why does vibrato become an issue for clarinettists?

F. G. Randall makes some interesting observations in his 1954 monograph ‘The Clarinet’. After stating that the clarinet’s greatest asset is its beauty of tone and power of expression, he comments on the need for caution in using vibrato. He states that vibrato “is quite unknown east of the Rhine”, but “had a passing vogue in France”. He then advises great care and discretion in using vibrato on the clarinet, suggesting that it is ” more suited to wind instruments of a tenuous or stringy tone, the flute or oboe, than to the clarinet with its complex and highly charged harmonic texture”. [Rendall, F. G. The Clarinet. Ernest Benn, 3rd edn. 1971 rev. Bates, P. pp. 39,40]

The great British clarinettist Jack Brymer broadly supports this view, and joins Rendall to a degree in deploring excessive and inappropriate use of a jazz-style vibrato. However, he relates a reminiscence of Brahms’ favoured clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld attributed to a “very old” viola-player who had occasionally been called upon by Joachim to play in his quartet, including performances of the Brahms Quintet with Mühlfeld. He describes the legendary clarinettist as having a fiery technique with a warm tone and a “big vibrato … much more than Joachim, and as much as the cellist”. [Brymer, J. Clarinet. McDonald and Jane’s, 1976. pp. 204-7]

Further, Eric Hoeprich comments on a recording of Charles Draper playing the quintet in 1917 in which “both the clarinettist and the strings make liberal use of vibrato”. Mühlfeld is reported to have commented favourably on a performance of Draper’s that he heard at that time, although that does not necessarily indicate any similarity in style of playing. He also claims that vibrato was “virtually never heard in Germany”, but was an accepted feature of clarinet playing in France and England. [Hoeprich, E. The Clarinet. Yale University Press, 2008. pp. 234-5]

Use of vibrato in Britain certainly seems to be accepted among clarinettists today, even if still viewed by some as controversial and by no means universally employed. Given the documentary evidence of Draper’s vibrato in 1917 and the anecdotal evidence of Mühlfeld’s playing style, it would seem possible to infer that vibrato was in more common use at the turn of the century than among the subsequent generation of clarinettists.

If this was the case, Reginald Kell was a notable exception. Kell studied clarinet at the Royal Academy from 1929 to 1932, developing an expressive use of vibrato inspired in part by the lyrical playing of celebrated oboist Leon Goossens. When recounting an occasion when none other than Fürtwängler complimented him on his playing, Kell describes his surprise in view of the fact that he was accustomed to being criticised for his vibrato instead of commended. After a successful career as principal clarinet of the Royal Philharmonic and Philharmonia orchestras, he moved to America where he received a mixed reception. Colin Lawson explains it thus: “The American clarinetist Robert Willaman (1954) gives some idea why; he described vibrato as originating on the saxophone in dance bands around 1920, as a palliative for crude tone production. “It may be that vibrato is a real improvement. Some people put sugar on ice cream. A great many do not and never will” (p. 246).” [Lawson, C. The British clarinet school: Legacy and legend. AEC, 2011]

Both Jack Brymer and another great British clarinetist Gevase de Peyer were greatly influenced by Kell and incorporated a warm, controlled vibrato into their style as a natural matter of course. For the most part, the issue of whether to use vibrato or not should be dictated by the requirements of the music and the interpretation of the performer. It should be neither omnipresent as a mannerism or consciously excluded as a matter of principle; as with other wind instruments, vibrato should be a matter of taste and choice.

Perhaps part of the problem experienced by some has to do with the difficulty of producing a controlled vibrato on the clarinet. The method used by saxophone players of pulsing the embouchure is also used by jazz clarinettists, and is simply too coarse an effect for many classical applications. To be preferred is the diaphragm vibrato, essentially similar to the technique used by singers. This is also the method used by flautists, but while it is straightforward enough when using the voice or an edge-blown wind instrument with little resistance, the clarinet is a different matter altogether. It takes considerable practise to master the subtle control and delicacy of a diaphragm vibrato on the clarinet, and I know of no easy way to teach it apart from cultivating it with the voice first. I remember my teacher answering my questions about vibrato by explaining the two techniques, describing the diaphragm vibrato as the preferable method, and encouraging me to leave well alone!