Doing what another instrument can do better

A couple days ago, I remarked that I didn’t much care for stuff like “Erlkönig” on the violin since it seemed to me that the violin was trying to imitate (poorly) what a keyboard instrument can do better: carry multiple voices. The end result sounded strained and mechanical to me.

I think this is also why I tend not to like trills on a piano. They sound much, much better on string instruments. Smoother, sweeter … not to mention the real standout of strings, which is vibrato. A piano trill always sounded to me like an inherently discrete (using the scientific definition) instrument was trying to kluge its way into doing something better done on a continuous (again, using the Nerd Definition) instrument: rapidly waver between pitches.

I’m sorry, but as much as a violin sounds like an elephant in toe shoes when playing “Erlkönig,” a piano sounds like … I don’t know, an elephant in toe shoes, I suppose … when trilling. Like a clanging machine drawing attention to its mechanical qualities more than to music. Grace notes, sure. They sound fabulous on a keyboard. But trills on pianos tend to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up, and not in a good way. In a screeching-macaque way. Strings, however, sound heavenly when they trill or do a vibrato.

I guess it all just falls into the realm of instruments having their tessiture, domains where they are at their best, and their clumsy courts, where they can be pushed with some technical sweat but become awkward.

It’s nice that there are pieces that do this sort of thing though, and players who can perform them. Pushing the boundaries gives composers and performers a more complete sense of the full spread of colors at their disposal. But … well, just because one has a certain spice in one’s cupboard, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be used very frequently.