Grainy Vinyl Goodness

I have the bad habit of taking on impossible challenges, congratulating myself on muddling partway toward them, and then bailing. It’s a personal failing, but it is invariably educational, and every now and then I actually accomplish something, so I can’t really make myself feel too bad about it. Whee! Let’s do six impossible things before breakfast (pace Lewis Carroll…)!

Right now, in order to make myself feel like I’m getting some good practice in this January (and to give myself a break from all of the reading and writing that are otherwise filling most of my time), I’ve set myself a doozy: the third movement of Mozart’s Duo for Violin and Viola in B-Flat (K424). I do not, at present, have good enough technique to do anything other than butcher this thing, but it’s an excellent piece for forcing me to work on a whole host of my weaknesses, especially in a) bow technique on both violin and viola and b) reading in alto clef for the viola, which I still often struggle to do. For whatever reason, in the last several years I’ve become more than a bit of a brute where the bow is concerned — I’ve been working so hard to fiddle out over amplified instruments (a different failing to be addressed some other time) that my bow technique has become all heavy, all the time. I sound, honestly, like I’m trying to play Mozart with a sledgehammer. A really, really angry sledgehammer that hates Mozart (and also Haydn — seriously, do NOT get the sledgehammer started on Haydn).

Anyway, in order to get at how this thing ought to sound, I’ve been digging around and trying to listen good models. There are a number of nice recordings online (and a few bafflingly strange ones as well), but I keep finding myself drawn back to the old, un-repaired, messily vinyl-grainy version of Mozart’s violin/viola duos that Jascha Heifetz recorded with William Primrose in (I think) the 1940s. The version available on iTunes is not a tidy thing. No one’s gone at it with the tools of digital sound management, really. It just sounds like what it is — an old record is playing. Compared to more recent recordings, it’s got almost no reverb, almost no echo, none of the sparkling, loud, highly compressed purity that listeners weaned on the CD have come to expect. There’s a constant grumbly hiss in the background — the sound of a needle in a groove or the air around a condenser mic in a small room, an inescapable texture underlying the sound of the violin and viola. It’s a strangely intimate sort of interference, that texture; it is, for me, a constant reminder of all of the things that aren’t in the recording itself, and of all of the wonderful things at are in it. I really, really like how Heifetz interprets Mozart in any case — his playing is genuinely grazioso, much more so than on many of the other recordings I’ve listened to. Primrose’s viola line is elegant and warm, and his style so nicely matches what Heifetz is doing that the performance is almost seamless. There’s not a lot of messing about with tempos or ornaments here (as there are in some more recent recordings) — the Heifetz/Primrose version is actually very straightforward, relying mostly on sweet bow technique and a scrupulous attention to dynamics. Even with the vinyl artifacts in the recording, it still sounds much the way it might for an audience in the same room with the performers. It’s so marvelously real.

So sweet! I can think of no better model to attempt to follow. I’m going to fall on my face (ANGRY SLEDGEHAMMER!), but it’s going to be so much fun trying! Hell, I might even develop slightly improved technique. Maybe. Sort of. A little.


About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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