In an exclusive video premiere, violinist Daniel Kurganov examines the art of legato and what violinists can learn from singers
Legato, from the Italian legare, which means ’to bind /tie together,’ is one of those words that has taken on various meanings in the past, and remains varied in its interpretation today. Is it a bow stroke? Is it a type of articulation? Is it an expressive idea, or relic from the past? I would say all of the above! Most crucially, it is a way of sounding – a sense of intense gravity between notes. It is an act of striving towards something, and the resulting line is always greater than the sum of its individual notes. All of this must be heard, experienced and felt – it cannot be described. In this latest edition of my BestPractice Violin Masterclass series, we will try to excite all of the senses so that we may deeply feel the legato tradition. First, we will explore basic exercises to develop your legato and discuss some pitfalls to avoid. A necessary deep-dive into the relevant left- and right-hand techniques will follow. Throughout, I’ll be demonstrating with famous excerpts from the violin repertoire, and we’ll continue by watching well known violinists and testing our legato-discernment skills in the wild. It might surprise you that many of the world’s most visible violinists rarely employ legato in the context of a cantilena.
As violinists, we always look to the beauty of the voice as our north star (it turns out that many singers look to the violin for inspiration). The bel canto style, codified by the operas of Bellini, Donizetti, Puccini and others, was arguably the birthplace of the formalisation of legato as we know it. In the late 1880s, this tradition was directly countered by the Wagnerian Sprechgesang aesthetic, which was a declamatory style emphasising diction and clarity over long, unbroken lines. Imagine for a moment The Ring Cycle with little care for the storyline. The work would immediately lose its magic and appeal. Now consider the nascent rom-com storylines of the great Italian operas and it becomes clear – it’s all about the bel canto way of sounding and the soaring legato lines. At times, they seem to go on forever, such that you’ve already forgotten the beginning of the word! In this masterclass video, we’ll go over examples of each and explore how we can translate that into the world of violin.
One fascinating comparison is that of Maria Callas and Birgit Nilsson singing Liebestod from Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Singing in Italian, Callas employs all of the classic bel canto techniques: soaring cantilena lines, vibrated movement between notes, and an overall infusion of nuance and intimacy. While the R in Wagner is rolled long and hard in this recording, the aficionados might scoff at this performance. However, they should know that Wagner himself enjoyed his music in Italian, for what that’s worth! When listening to Nilsson, death and ecstasy become one and the same. Intimate nuances are left behind, while a mountain of majestic sound and purity takes us on an emotional rollercoaster. You will hear nothing of a Bayreuth Bark here. Which of these two approaches better captures Isolde’s grief over the death of Tristan? I’d want to listen to Callas in very close proximity, and with Nilsson, I’d want to feel the power from the last row of the balcony.
Closer to home, the legato tradition of modern day violin playing is firmly rooted in the teachings of Leopold Auer, Carl Flesch and Ivan Galamian. A descendent of the Auer school, Yuri Yankelevich, put it in a unique way: ’…the main difficulty of legato consists of uniting the lyrical character of the sound in general with the lyrical character and roundness of each individual note.’ It’s as if we should be able to deconstruct a legato line and find within each note the spirit, nuance, and quality of the entire line.
Arguably more important than the quality of the notes themselves is how we bind them together. The concept of legato therefore hinges on an acute sensitivity to what is between the notes. I find this to be a universal quality in musical traditions around the world. Take, for example, Indian classical music: entire emotional and narrative concepts are embedded into the journey one takes between notes. It’s actually formalised into techniques called kampitam, and various gestures such as meend, gamak, and jaaru represent a shared need to weave something sublime into the fabric of notation. The genre-hopping western classical violinist Gilles Apap spent years studying this artform and explores this very concept here. Can we draw some parallels between these sonic values and the emblematic portamenti of Jascha Heifetz, Fritz Kreisler, George Enescu, Yehudi Menuhin, David Oistrakh and other greats? To this day, these techniques and aesthetic principles remain a sort of idiosyncrasy in the violin world. I imagine a day when they are much more than that – perhaps even formalised and widespread modes of expression, as their counterparts are in the Indian classical tradition.