Our season ended a few weeks ago with a series of concerts including the Tchaikovsky Symphony #5.
Since this piece presents some special challenges for the bassoonist, I'd like to devote a series of posts to specific solutions to problems raised in performance of this piece.
Our conductor for the week was Manfred Honeck, the Music Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony. This is a piece he conducts frequently. He knows it inside-out and has very specific ideas for interpretation, some of which directly contradict markings Tchaikovsky put in the score.
However, in rehearsal he presented his ideas with an authority and respect that convinced me. After all, it's fun to try something new in a well-worn piece like this. We perform this piece all the time.
Another point in Honeck's favor was that he brought his own parts with his own annotations. All that was necessary was to connect what he was saying to the blue pencil markings in the part.
Unfortunately, many of the blue markings were extra "pp's" added to Tchaikovsky's already prolific use of that dynamic! I came to the first rehearsal armed with two different mutes to use if needed.
In the opening the theme which appears in all the movements is intoned by the clarinets. The bassoons join in adding color shortly after that.
In order to stay under the clarinets, muting the soft B's and C's may be necessary. The best mute fingering here is done by anchoring the side of the right thumb on the post that joins the thumb F# spatula to the body of the bassoon and partially closing the low E key with the fat part of the thumb. This softens the B's and C's without changing the timbre or pitch.
I use this fingering to dampen notes in the middle register when necessary.
Next the bassoon and clarinet play the main march theme together.
The metronome marking in the score is dotted ♩ = 104, although it's rarely played that fast. Usually I've played this at between 88 - 96.
Accuracy of rhythm and articulation is extremely important in this spot. For good rhythm a good practice tip is to remove all slurs and ties and articulate every note in the passage as well as turning the quarters into two articulated eighth notes.
It's very easy to play the rhythms in this passage haphazardly. The passage achieves its distinctive character only when played with the utmost accuracy!
The sixteenth rests are also important and easy to gloss over. Without them, the line sings too much. This is a march of fate (it has Tchaikovsky's fate motive of dotted eighth, sixteenth, eighth in it), not a carefree melody!
Carefully measured dynamics add the finishing touch to the nuance in the line. Measure the crescendo from E through F# and G to A in the first measure carefully, making sure the F# is not too bright or loud (little finger F# works better here). Follow the decay of sound down from A back to E in the next bar.
In the third bar, the third G should be the strongest, not the G on the downbeat. Then pro-rate the diminuendo from G through F# down to E again being careful of the sonority of the F# and playing the E very softly. It's "Three Blind Mice" in a minor key. The building block of all great melodies! Three Blind Mice; not Three Blind Mice, Three Blind Mice or Three Blind Mice!
If you shape the line this way you will be ready to start the next line at a low enough ebb so the whole thing doesn't take on a generic "mf" quality. The hushed, halting quality of this opening statement can be thereby achieved!
However, this is what I found in Honeck's part:
F# = 1/2xx/xxGF#
If you practice your e melodic minor scales you should be able to play this easily. For evenness think of the upward line at B as three groups of two and the downward line as two groups of three -- without showing this subdivision in the playing, of course!
One of the many awkward moments for the bassoons in m.119 with the slurs from F#2 - F#1.
Because the bassoon lacks a true octave key and since the two notes are fingered nearly identically, the slur is very difficult to execute smoothly using the regular fingerings. Without special help here the result can be embarrassing for the bassoonist!
Here are some fingerings to try:
F#2 = oxx/xxG lfF# F#1 = xxx/xxG thF#
or F#2 = oxx/xxG thF# F#1 = xxx/xxG lfF#
Replacing the half hole with a completely open tone hole helps lock in the slur. Most people find one of these combinations works better than the other. The slur can also be helped with a legato tongue on the low F# -- and "L" tongue. A slight snapping down of the jaw at the moment of the change to the low F# is also helpful.
The passage is a bit easier than it looks because, in order to be heard it must often be played "mf" or louder. The last repetition is often done in ritard so look out!
The solo ends in m.328 on the last G. The dotted quarter note D begins an accompanimental section in which the theme is now in the flute and clarinet. Even the second bassoon has a more important role here than the first. The marking of "pp" for the solo versus "p" for the accompaniment should not result in a louder dynamic for the accompaniment. This dynamic change is for the whole score -- not just the bassoon part. The first bassoonist should actually player less here. Your playing should exhibit this change in role.
At the end of the first movement the bassoonists are presented with a long, challenging passage. Here you will see every possible gradation of dynamic commonly used in music (except "mp" for some reason!). The passage is also technically challenging.
This passage makes an excellent audition excerpt and has been used as such.
In performance the biggest challenge comes at the end. Can the bassoonists play the low B's softly and in tune with the basses, fading out in time with them? This part must rank as one of the most bone-headed orchestration choices in all of his symphonies!
Why Tchaikovsky paired the bassoons on one of the most troublesome notes on the instrument is anybody's guess!
Here is what we did in our performances:
During the rests before letter Y I put on a reed that had an especially good low register and a great "pp" response.
At letter Z, Billy Hestand and I put felt mutes in our bells. These are cone-shaped sewn fabric with holes punched in them. They dampen the sound without blocking the bell. Since low B speaks out of the bell tone hole, you don't want to completely block the bell.
In the last line we staggered breathing between the G's so the line could be continuous and we'd both be fresh enough for the B's. Breathing between the two B's is dangerous!
In order to achieve a softer dynamic on the last G ("ppp") I muted the G by putting down the low B key.
G= xxx/xxG (whisper lock on)
This also allows a safer transition to low B because several of the tone holes closed for B are already stopped on G. Only G sounding and F sounding tone holes on the boot joint remain open.
You also need to lock down the whisper key for this fingering. I did this during the first long G in the last line.
In Honeck's parts the last B was marked in blue with extra "p's" and the word "possibile" was written below! Egregious!!
In my next post, I'll outline some solutions to problems posed in the second movement.