A continuous vibrato is one of the key elements of modern violin playing. So it’s easy to forget that there was a time when vibrato was used much more sparingly as an ornament. Listen to German violinist Joseph Joachim’s 1903 recordings of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 1 and No 2 and you’ll hear this older approach to sound. In a 2011 interview, German violinist Isabelle Faust discusses Joachim’s insistence on strict tempos and limited vibrato in Brahms’ Violin Concerto, which was written for Joachim:
[Joachim] wanted a deeply felt but unsentimental approach to this music. Also from this perspective the ‘Violinschule’ is a fascinating read: it learns us a lot about the use of vibrato. Even if a melody is marked ‘con gran espressione’ or ‘molto appassionato’ it would not be the right thing to vibrate on every note or even a single bar, by mere habit or because it is so comfortable for the left hand.
This approach is on display in Isabelle Faust’s 2009 album featuring Beethoven’s complete Violin Sonatas with pianist Alexander Melnikov. Let’s hear their performance of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 5 in F major, Op. 24, commonly known as the “Spring” Sonata. In this interpretation violin and piano come together as true equals, restoring the balance of Beethoven’s time. We’re reminded of Beethoven’s official titles for these works: “Sonata for Piano and Violin.” Listen to the conversation between the two instruments which takes place in this passage in the first movement. A remarkable hushed serenity envelops the second movement. The brief, playful Scherzo is a musical cat-and-mouse game between piano and violin. The adventures of the final movement (Rondo) culminate in this moment of quiet contentment before a final exuberant outburst.