Saying something new

The discussion of unlistened-to boxes, along with that on Massimo Berghella’s Louis Couperin, makes me wonder: is there anything truly new a performer can bring the bulk of repertory to say?

Of course I don’t mean live-music, I mean studio recordings: do we need more CDs of Ninth symphonies, or Don Giovannis or WTC or Goldbergs?

An in general: what must a performer do in order to say something new in a well-known piece of music? (I mean, short of playing at half or double speed or similar oddities)

The trouble is often in finding an excellent older recording that is now out of print. For instance, when I bought the Walcha JSB organ works, it was just the stereo versions. Now you have to pay €156 for a box that contains everything he ever recorded for DG – including the early mono versions of the organ works, and the not so interesting 48 on an Ammer serien-harpsichord!


I’d be quite interested in that. Is it still available? Is there a link? I was unable to find it on the DG website.

I don’t think that being ‘new’ is the point at all. But I will say that Early Music performance has vastly improved over the last thirty years and continues to get better with players who truly understand the styles and the scholarship and have mastered their instruments since young. To that extent there is a lot of newness as we get better and better performances and recordings. I believe there is a case for saying there is such a thing as progress in art. And the display of such progress is justification for new recordings.

Indeed, many recordings of Walcha on the organ back in the 1960 are excellent even by today’s standards. I have the box with his complete JSBach organ recordings in Lübeck and Cappel: I got it in 2010, 10 CDs, and the price was very reasonable back then!

I do not quite agree, Andrew. In some respects there is a huge improvement, in others there is not.
Examples of improvement

  1. 30 years ago it was difficult to find a proper performance of notes inégales: many players played them mechanically, or else strong inégales (triplets), or just failed to play them at all. Nowadays most players perform them satisfactorily at least.
  2. 30 years ago some players performed very mechanically pieces meant for a less rigid approach. This has certainly improved.

3) The fad for playing fast movements demonstrably faster than the composer meant, has not improved.
4) On the rubato side we are often worse: measured pieces where the rubato exceeds the beat and it is really performed almost non-mesuré, against many 18th century sources (e.g. F. Couperin, W.A: Mozart) telling us that this was considered in bad taste.
5) On a melodic instrument they try so much to perfect their technique that today often you hear on the radio a baroque oboe and you wonder whether it is a modern one.
6) On a melodic instrument they keep playing even relatively short notes (crotchets) with an absolutely uniform “crescendo the first half and vibrato the second half”: a mannerism that cannot be justified on historical grounds. Not to speak of singers: many period-instrument recordings feature romantic-vibrato singers.

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I think you may need to turn your monitor upside down and use Elgoog!



CDV Claudio Di Veroli
February 7 |

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  1. Not to speak of singers: many period-instrument recordings feature romantic-vibrato singers.

Hear, hear!

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Nothing to say on your post. Singers are a bit apart, though, as we all know the treatises and reports from listeners of the time, who speak of strength, expressiveness and overwhelming sounds. Of course there are many ways to convey strength and overwhelming sounds other than vibrato, you are right.
However, countertenors voices and sounds, for example, do not recall what treatises and listeners say about the singers of their time. We accept them because they do convey other elements of the aesthetics of Baroque, but se should be aware it’s a compromise. It’s true for singers other than castratos as well: we know the tenors weren’t usually the light tenors of today but “baritenors”, both for range and timbre, and the basses were deep basses.
I think a little quantity of vibrato was used even at those time, as a little vibrato is something voice produces naturally when well emitted, i.e, with an open throat and the sound “in mask” with the purpose to be heard above the instruments at the far end of the theatre. Of course, I don’t mean the romantic type of vibrato, far from it. Just pointing out.

I don’t hear so many singers singing with so much vibrato nowadays, however, safe in romantic opera where I see a whole lot of bad habits. Artificial cavernous voices, ah! Listen to the great baritons of first hal of XX century, De Luca, Battistini, Galeffi: strong and light, their trebles are strikingly similar to a tenor’s, their basses are still light with no artificial darkening. Throat open, ever.

(oh, and we should set “vibrato” apart from “intense vibrations” from waving intonation…)

Sorry for the off-topic, you know, I am Italian… :slight_smile:

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Well said, Domenico.

Regarding vibrato, we must confront the fact that the organ stops named after the voice (“voix humaine”, “vox humana” et al) invariably combined slightly detuned pipes that produced a wavering effect, not a straight tone.

Boris, what you describe is the Italian “fiffaro”, French “voix céleste” (and occasionally similar stops in other countries) which added a row of slightly mistuned pipes to produce a vibrato, with increasing speed going up the range.

Not so, however, for the ones you name: in France for centuries the “voix humaine” and “vox humana” have always been a particular type of reed stop, with no detuning and no vibrato. See Vox humana - Wikipedia

I am no expert in organs, but the link you provided says:

“[vox humana] so named because of its supposed resemblance to the human voice. As a rule, the stop is used with a tremulant, which undulates the wind supply, causing a vibrato effect. The vox humana is intended to evoke the impression of a singing choir or soloist“

This resembles very much to what Boris wrote, no? The vibrato effects is there via the tremulant, used as a rule with the vox humana. Or so I read. What am I missing?

Please re-read your quotation and Boris post. Boris says that those stops provide undulation by mistuning. This is not the case. An external source for variation of the air supply, the tremulant, when used, undulates the wind supply, causing a vibrato. But before applying it, the pipes are tuned in perfect unison with a Principal 8’.
See also the reference treatise “The Language of the Classical French Organ” by Fenner Douglass, the different quotes about the Tremblant are NEVER particularly associated with a voix humaine or vox humana.

This well-informed site on the history of the Vox Humana tells us clearly that the stop was known in the middle ages, while its association with a wind-supply tremulant (a much later invention) came later to produce the vibrato, again with no mistuning of any pipe.

Very good information. Thanks Claudio. The wiki article you posted nevertheless states the stop was generally used with a tremulant, meaning most often unless the wiki article is not to be fully trusted.

Unless I am mistaken I took the purpose and meaning of Boris’ post to be that the human voice was conceived as possessing a vibrato in singing and it was imitated in the stop plus tremulant… Perhaps another instance of a tape recorder from that time? Boris may correct me please if i misunderstood.


It is quite possible that the tremulant was discovered rather than invented, by which I mean that it can be achieved serendipitously by an unstable wind supply. Remember that in those days, the wind was more often than not supplied to the pipes by some poore sodde pumping a lever up and down behind the scenes. Only the best organs, for instance in St Paul’s Cathedral, London, were powered by hydraulics!

The voix celeste was, of course, discovered by an incompetent tuner, aided by changes in the weather… :grinning:

There is a video recording of Rostropovich playing the organ in Vezelay to illustrate something about his Bach performance. The instrument was one continuous beat-making machine, I dont know whether it is still typical, but 50 years ago I encountered many organs in rural France thus tuned.


So it is a vibrato caused by the undulating strength of the wind - the pitch standing fixed - as opposed to a vibrato caused by the undulating pitch, if I understand correctly.
Fine, this is what I mean, too. “Vibrato” as undulating pitch is considered a flaw in singing technique. Or it was. It is caused by poor control/resistence of the respiratory muscles and diaphragm. The “vibrazioni” or “vibrazioni intense” are a good thing, instead. Vibrazioni are much faster than vibrato and don’t involve intonation shifting.

For some (historical, maybe) reasons, Italians, Spanish and Frenchs get the difference between vibrato and vibrazioni more clearly than English people, hence the frequent accusation of vibrato-singing to robust-tone singers who were showing no vibrato at all. National differences in singing and understanding singing are much less pronounced nowadays. The Italian singing style has departed from the classic. In doing so, it has departed from the XVIII-century school, please consider that there was a continuity in the singong learning/teaching since 1600 till first quarter of XX century. To be precise, the “romantic vibrato” was not romantic at all, it was “verista”. “Verismo” was a literary/cultural movement at the end of XIX century that introduced a whole lot of aesthetic and cultural shifts, explicitly opposing to Romanticism. Verismo - Wikipedia

Romantic way of singing involved controlled air emission, open throat, falsettone (as opposed to falsetto), strong but restrained sentiments.
The “verista” taste on the contrary liked “true” sentiments to be expressed freely without the filter of “good” technique: if a note represented a cry or a shout, let’s emit it just as we were shouting. Savagely-represented sentiments were successful, teachers shifted to the new aesthetics, and the continuity of the Italian school of singing from baroque was endangered.

… and then, there is Al Bano. :slight_smile:

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This may well be the case for very early organs.
In the more advanced Baroque era, AFAIK, the reserve-bellows had already been invented. The helpers with their bellows just fed the reserve, which were loaded with weights to provide a very steady wind supply, with no vibrato whatsoever.
By that time all large organs had the typical “tremulant box”, engaged via a stop knob, and affecting all the stops of one of the manuals. In France organs might have both a “tremulant fort” and a “tremulant doux”.

The pitch will surely also sag if the strength of the wind is reduced. I dont know whether this or loudness will be the predominant effect, though I should expect the human ear to be more sensitive to the former.

As you undoubtedly know there is an indicator of the reserve wind level, but a lazy and bored apprentice might not be very observant and could let this hover around the critical point. (There are many complaints about apprentices letting the air fall too low and organists punishing them for this after the service!)

I was once playing for a service which was being broadcast live by the BBC and improvising as the clergy and choir processed in. I must have been playing double pedals while working up to a climax, as the pitch, momentarily and quite unexpectedly sagged noticeably. That got the BBC people quite worried! It had never happened before and never happened again while I was the organist there!


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