Definition: The carrying of a sound on a voice or stringed instrument, the transition from one note to another higher or lower without any break in the sound.
This expressive device was the key to the Romantic style of violin playing. One can immediately identify the artist by the use of the portamento to personally express the meaning of music. At the turn of the 20th century, early recordings of Sarasate, Kubelik and others give evidence of technical preoccupation . It was Eugene Ysaye whose poetic approach required the gliding technique to make the violin sing like the human voice. His few recordings demonstrate his excessive use of the portamento. Kreisler, who was a contemporary of Ysaye, stylized his interpretations with a portamento that I refer to as the “hook-slide”. He would drag his index finger and pounce on the desired note with the other fingers. When Heifetz came on to the scene, he had an unique upward portamento, which was created by sliding with one finger from note to note. His subtle use of the portamento and his near perfect technique startled the violin world. Milstein came soon afterwards with his personal stamp, a downward portamento which gave his interpretations a sighing affect that was warm and expressive. Menuhin arrived using both, upward and downward slides. Sometimes he would drag a finger in a glissando manner with vibrato from note to note. The effect was very appealing. In my youth, I attended many performances of these great players. I would sit in the first or second row, studying every move and tried to emulate what they did when I got home. What I learned from all these great artists, was you must never press the fingers of the left hand in affecting a slide and to make sure the bow speed is equal to the speed of your slide. I employ all of the sliding techniques in my interpretations. In the 1960s, a change in violin playing began; a trend towards literal accuracy of the composer and a purification of performance mannerisms. I often refer to this period as The Inquisition where the portamento was shunned and personal style and taste was considered old-fashioned. However Oistrakh, Stern, and Szeryng were outstanding artists of this period with beautiful tones who played with a minimum of sliding and personal mannerisms. This style has more or less persisted until this day although I do begin to see signs of change again. The portamento if tastefully used, provides the warmth and personality of the artist and brings music to life in a recreative role. Without this we might just as well computerize an interpretation and eliminate the portamento forever.