Friday, June 14, 2013

Tchaikovsky 5th -- Third Movement

The third movement of this symphony is the most action-packed for the first bassoonist.  Every note in the part is important and mostly exposed.  There are several solos.

As the waltz starts the bassoons play off beats.  Then after letter A the first bassoon has a counter line. This line ends just before the solo in the middle line.

When playing this it's important to bring out the change of role in the second line of the part.  Many excerpt books print the last two eighth notes before the solo starting the excerpt there.  This gives the false impression that the solo starts there.  These are not pick up notes!

They should be played lightly with a lift at the end of the B. Start the solo with the oboe on the bar line at a higher dynamic to shift the tone from an accompanimental to a soloistic presence.

The echo in the fourth bar of the solo is customary and helps prepare for a really effective crescendo later on.  End the solo as if you were going to play the upward scale in the next bar. Practice it by adding the scale (just play the clarinet cues before letter B!) and you'll be less likely to drag the downward scale.  

At letter B you join the clarinets in the main melody.

There is no dynamic indication for the entrance, but it should be soft so you can blend with the clarinets.  Probably "p" or "mp". I like to use Short C# for this passage because it's more mellow and blends with the dark clarinet sound here.


Be sure to pace the dynamics in this carefully so you can really show the "f" after C.  The passage is very repetitive otherwise.

After this tutti passage comes a big solo for the bassoon.

This solo sounds like it could have come right out of one of Tchaikovsky's ballets and as such it needs to sound light and graceful.  Playing it can be anything but graceful, however. The awkward downward 7ths and off-beat rhythm make this one of the toughest solos in the literature.

I have several tips for success in this one.

First, don't play at letter D!  The second bassoon doubles your line here, so take a little break to catch your breath and get ready for the solo.

Acoustics play a role in this solo.  The first part of the solo can get lost in the reverberation from the end of the tutti passage if played softly and in time. So wait a split second before starting, play the pick up notes a bit louder and slightly out of time, then pull back to "p", play in time and start the crescendo.

Acoustics can also be distracting during the off beats.  The strings play pizzicato down beats so you alternate with them. It's very easy to end up on the beat with the strings if you're not steady. If you can hear them well, you can guide off them. If not, you're really on your own!

However, YOU have the solo, so ideally they should follow you. Since you're outnumbered this will never happen unless you get a little help from the conductor.  Again, the I.Q. test (see previous post on the Second Movement).  The conductor should accompany you with the beat, helping the strings play in the right groove.

If you play the solo with great authority in the first rehearsal, people (including conductors) will tend to follow you.  If you want a passage to go a certain way, you need to convince others with the conviction in your playing from the outset.

When I played this passage in the orchestra a few weeks ago, I played as steady as I could, taking care each slurred note spoke on time.  I didn't look up to watch the conductor. That can be confusing!

The tempo was fast - about ♩= 152 (normal is♩= 138) so I really plowed through this solo.  

I was successful except for one run-through in rehearsal in which I tried to play a bit more freely and I ended up with the strings on the beat.  The next time through I played it very straight. Every time after that I fit in just right.  Towards the later performances I could really feel the string part fitting in with me.

If you play on a stage where it's hard to get feedback it's helpful in this passage to just stick to your guns and have someone out in the hall listening for the timing of your off beats.

Here are some practice tips for this passage.

Play the off beats re-barred in 4/4 time, thinking of them as downbeats.

Remember to flick or half hole for the lower note in each downward 7th.

Tuning these intervals can be difficult.  Often the 7ths are too small -- upper notes flat, lower ones sharp.

Here's a trick for hearing the intervals better. We hear 2nds more easily than we do 7ths, so play the passage this way:

Then play as written and you will hear it differently.

Later in the movement comes a very tricky little technical flourish with the clarinet.  Alternate fingerings are in order here because this goes like the wind!

Here are my choices for this one:

Fx = 1/2xx/x

G# = 1/2xx/xox
A= xxx/xox
G# = xxx/xox

The rest of the notes are fingered normally. 

The fourth movement of the symphony requires no special attention except that you should have your double tongue revved up and a pair of earplugs at the ready!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Tchaikovsky 5th -- Second Movement

After the soft ending of the first movement I needed to be sure to remove the mute from the bell, unlock the whisper key, remove any condensation from the bocal and change reeds if I had been using a soft/low reed for that last line of low notes.

This must be done quietly and diplomatically so as not to disturb the mood or concentration of anyone else on stage. The horn player is about to play one of the most beautiful melodies written for that instrument and no one wants to hear or see you cleaning and fidgeting in your chair during it!

The second movement part begins with an awkward little five-note solo:

It is a variant of the oboe countermelody in the beginning of the movement.  The bassoon follows the clarinet down an octave. This is typical Russian orchestration.  Unlike Beethoven or Brahms, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky and others favored color variations through changes in orchestration over theme development. Solos pass verbatim from one instrument to another. The varieties of color available in the woodwind section provided the interest for them.

In such passages it's important that each soloist strive to match the style and intensity of the one who plays the motive first.  After the flute, oboe and clarinet play the bassoon can often sound foggy or distant to the listener. To match the intensity and presence of the other instruments, it's helpful to play the motive at a higher dynamic level than indicated in these situations.

While it's not necessary to do so in this particular solo, in most cases it is. 

In the solo above you should strive to have no gap between the clarinet exit and your entrance.  The tone color and phrasing should be as similar as possible.  The little motive shapes toward the "Blue Note" D on the bar line and falls away to the C#.  Use little finger F# for a smooth transition down to the A#. Tongue the A# lightly to give the impression of a portamento/slur without actually doing so.

Next is one of the great solos of the repertoire.

Rhapsodic and expressive, it demands a beautiful, even, singing tone in the tenor range.  Instruments, reeds and bocals are prized for the quality they show in solos like these!

The bassoonist starts the solo at a distinct disadvantage.
  • The clarinet plays it first. It's in a better range for the clarinet and has lighter scoring, so the clarinetist can play this with more freedom and ease.
  • The bassoon solo contains some of the worst notes on the instrument and an awkward set of 9 notes alternating between mode II and mode III acoustically.
  • The heavier scoring gives you less leeway with dynamics - mostly "mp" to "f"
Here are some ways to make the solo shine:

Use "Long" C# to start:  xxx/oxGF

Other usual fingerings such as the"Short"


or the "Claw"

   c# Bb

don't work as well.  The "Short" is too muted and stuffy, the "Claw" cracks frequently when articulated (it cracks when slurred, too -- what good is this fingering, anyway?) 

The "Long":  xxx/oxGF
gives the first note the presence needed for the first note of the solo. Modification of the C# tone hole on the wing joint can temper the inherent brightness and sharpness of this fingering.

The next issue to deal with is pitch.  The C# has a sharp tendency and the G# can be flat. The distance between the two needs to be large enough. 

Then there's the B!

High B tends to be so flexible on the bassoon that you can put it just about anywhere within a major second!  You really need to HEAR the high B before you play it.  To get the pitch of the B in your ear, try playing this part down an octave where it's easier to nail the pitches. Then sing the first several notes. Then try up an octave using the lower octave as your model. In addition, embouchure position and breath support need to be memorized for approaching this note from G#. 

The 9 notes should be just that -- 9 notes, no more, no less and not just a trill.  They need to be measured and subdivided.  Either a grouping of 4+5 or three triplets should work.  In execution they should not sound like they're part of a math problem, however.  It's most effective to give a little stress to the first D to show it's part of a line from E on the first beat through C# to B  in the next bar.

Play the measure leaving out the nines by just playing the notes on the beat.  It's Three Blind Mice again!!

Two fingerings work well for the E's in the 9's.

D = xxo/
E=   xoo/


D = xxo/

E = xoo/

The last bar of the solo is often played as an echo and with rubato. Again here the bassoonist is at a disadvantage compared with the clarinet.  Playing too softly or using a lot of rubato can complicate matters for the second bassoonist who answers in both bars. The echo -- if played too softly -- can get lost in the thick string background.  So moderation is advised here.

Here's a great clip of this solo played by J. Walter Guetter in 1934 with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Listen to the whole movement or start about 5'50" in for the clarinet and bassoon solos.

Next the solo returns in a different key.  The traffic is very heavy, so the bassoonist really needs to pump out the resonance for this one.  You can judge the I.Q. of your conductor here.  If the conductor quiets the strings for your entrance  -- GENIUS!!  If no adjustment is made -- IDIOT!!

Sometimes this solo is doubled. Not a bad idea!

Later in the movement the bassoons join the woodwinds in this melody.

Here we see an example of written-out rubato.  All the tenuti, and the frequent changes of mood and tempo show that this kind of mercurial flow to the line was standard in this kind of music. In the late nineteenth century composers started writing out where rubato would be traditional.  Perhaps the need to write it down indicated that the oral tradition was starting to pass away.  Anyway this is where the over-edited, hovering compositional style of many 20th century composers got its start. (See Willson Osborne's Rhapsody for Bassoon).

The last section of the movement has its challenges.

After an extremely loud outburst by the brass, the clarinets and bassoons play a tender passages leading back into the main tempo.  This can be very painful because there is no time to remove earplugs after the outburst. The next section is too delicate to play with them still in my ears so I had to endure the extreme decibels without protection.

In Honeck's parts the third entrance on the "pp" D had an extra "p" added to it and the hairpin crescendo/diminuendo was crossed out.  This required mute fingerings for the D, E and F#.  For the D and E I partially depressed the low E Key.  For the F# I used:

F# = 1/2xx/xxGFF# th and F#lf
               w   E

Going into the 12/8  it's important to start subdividing eighth triplets on the Bb's so everyone can play the 16th together.

For the rest of the movement the object is to hide on the A's and low D's with each note speaking on time and sustaining full value.

There is no time to stick a mute in the bell so here are the fingerings I used:

A = xxx/xx (whisper lock on)
      low C#

D = xxx/xxGF (whisper lock on)
 low BbD  E

For those of you trying these fingering:  If my symbols are confusing, let me know and I'll post them using a more visual layout.

Next, I'll examine the solos in the third movement.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Tchaikovsky 5th -- First Movement

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.

Movement I

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:

 Now the second half of the phrase was to be played in "echo".  So instead of my finely tuned diminuendo I needed to mute the F#.
F# = 1/2xx/xxGF#
           D w

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#
              w                              w

or F#2 = oxx/xxG thF#  F#1 = xxx/xxG lfF#
                  w                              w

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!

At the recap of the first movement the bassoon restates the theme -- this time without the clarinet.  This is usually played a bit slower than the exposition.  Notice the subtle changes in articulation compared with the exposition duet.

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.