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Viola - Mind Map

Viola – Mind Map (Photo credit: dplastino)

Last week I heard a surprising recording.

While I would like to be able to say the surprises were positive and inspiring, they were, in fact, the opposite.  But the performers gave us all some important things to consider.

The music

Mozart Divertimento

The players

My best guess is that these are college faculty members.  The cellist is famous, and plays an amazing instrument.  The violinist and violist are less gifted, with lesser instruments as well.

Right away, the listener hears a serious imbalance in sound.

Ensemble

Each player’s playing was vastly different.

Cellist:  Incisive attack, forward-moving rhythm and phrasing.

Violist:  Middle of the road, nothing special about the sound or phrasing.  Apparently trying to fit in and nothing more.

Violinist:  Every entrance started from nothing and grew, only becoming audible after the cello.  The violist did not have a definite, convincing starting point.  The result sounded like turning on a radio, then turning up the volume.

In addition, his musical idea (only one) did not fit the piece.  His idea of phrasing was to do a little “hairpin” crescendo and diminuendo on each long note (half notes, for example).  That is the kind of expression that might be more appropriate in the music of Schumann.

Both the subtle entrance and the phrasing would be appropriate elsewhere.  The wonderful clarinetist Richard Stoltzman plays many an entrance by starting from nothing.  Singers can be extraordinarily effective with this approach as well.  The opening of Purcell’s “Music For A While” is a good example.

What happened?

I have been thinking of possible reasons that the recording was released at all, being that the problems are so obvious:

  • Someone uninvolved in the recording was the only person who listened to the result, telling the others it was okay.
  • Academic pressure to “publish or perish.”
  • Thinking, for whatever reason, that no one would ever hear the recording.  Oops.

What can we take away from this?

One-size-fits-all playing is never appropriate.  If you have nothing to say, then why are you playing?

I have posted previously about the boring result of playing everything the same way.  Attempting to “fit in” with others in ensemble playing doesn’t work, either.  The player may as well go home.

Everyone may have to compromise to arrive at the best result.  If entrances are not together, that should be obvious.

Phrasing should be discussed in rehearsals!

Always listen to the recording before letting it out of your sight!  Someone, somewhere, will hear it later.  Even if that person is your grandmother, she has friends who also have friends.  And YouTube is out there.  Protect your interests.

Different mic placement may have made the instruments sound more equal.

Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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Review by pianist Robert W. Oliver

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