musings of a professional bassoonist

Monday, January 30, 2012

Prokofiev Symphony No. 4

Although Prokofiev himself favored his Symphony No. 4, apparently not everyone does - it  is rarely performed.  Prokofiev said that he liked this symphony for its "subdued tone and wealth of material".  (Believe me, its tone is not completely subdued!) Sergei Prokofiev, one of the 20th century's great composers (the greatest in some musicians' opinion), often infused his music with a dynamic, life-affirming character, and Symphony No. 4 is no exception, ending in a blaze of C major glory.  This very lyrical symphony, based upon Prokofiev's ballet The Prodigal Son, was substantially revised by Prokofiev in 1947, and it was this revision which the Columbus Symphony recently performed under the direction of guest conductor Rossen Milanov.

This symphony's 1st bassoon part is quite colorful and exposed.  The 4-note figures beginning at 12 in the 1st movement dovetail with the same notes in the second bassoon part.  This passage must be played with extreme smoothness and tranquility.  Then at 13, the 1st bassoon plays an unaccompanied solo, continuing the smooth, tranquil quality established earlier.

Prokofiev's bassoon parts are often unusual clef-wise, with treble clef making frequent appearances.  But check out the 3rd note in the measure 3 bars after 49:

Yes, that's a high E flat written in bass clef - we bassoonists rarely encounter high E flats, and we never encounter high E flats (also known as E flat 5) in bass clef (until now)!  This passage is with the horns and 2nd bassoon (an octave lower).

Another of the many exposed 1st bassoon passages begins the 3rd movement, in octaves with the 1st oboe:

Attention to detail is very important in this piece.  Maestro Milanov asked the oboe and bassoon to play this opening in a style which might be described as smooth and graceful, yet scherzando-like and full of character. 

Later in the movement there is another unaccompanied bassoon solo, beginning on high C (C5) written in bass clef:

I used the Bflat key fingering for F# (RH: 2 + E flat key; RH: 1 + 2 + Bflat key) because sometimes when playing with a full sound, it's too easy for the F# with my usual fingering (RH: 2 + Eflat key; RH: 1 + 2 + 4) to go sharp in pitch.  I also use the alternate F# key for the lower F# on the 2nd beat at 63.  I often use that fingering for its slightly darker tone and very slightly lower pitch.  Using the alternate F# key is a bit more challenging technically, but I use it so often that I'm used to it.

The 32nd note scale in the 3rd measure below really threw me off when I first looked at it, and I had a hard time trying to play it!  Then I realized that it was the enharmonic equivalent of an E flat major scale.  Oftentimes I jot down the key in the part to help with the execution of a tricky passage, but in this case the enharmonic equivalent was more useful than the original key, for sure.

The passage at 8 measures after 70 is another unaccompanied bassoon solo:

This solo is best played very legato, with a full sound, watching the conductor for the huge slowdown (with diminuendo) into 71.

There were mistakes in my part in the following exposed passages, so if you play this piece, check your part for note mistakes.  The 1st section, before 90, is with the 1st flute and the next section is with the 1st oboe.  These passages are finger twisters:

It takes a certain kind of reed to pull of the following sarcastic bassoon solo in the 4th movement (it's in 2 beats per measure, or one beat per measure for 2/4 or 3/4):

It really has to be played forte and should sound like a taunting, bratty child!   I chose a reed that had a really strong and reliable high C.  It has to cut through the orchestra.  The mocking bassoon outburst continues a few bars later, in B flat major and c minor.

I would say that Prokofiev had a vividly imaginative approach to his bassoon writing, especially in this symphony, and I am glad to have had the opportunity to perform it.


Saturday, January 14, 2012

Brahms-Schoenberg Piano Quartet Op.25 arranged for Orchestra

The Brahms-Schoenberg Piano Quartet, Op.25 arranged for Orchestra was performed last week by the Columbus Symphony with guest conductor Matthias BamertAs soon as our recording is available, I'll post in here for the benefit of anyone unfamiliar with this magnificent work (which has been referred to as Brahms' 5th symphony!). 

To answer the question of why he orchestrated the Brahms Piano Quartet, Op. 25 for large orchestra, Schoenberg wrote:

"My reasons: I like the piece.
It is seldom played.
It is always very badly played, because, the better the pianist, the louder he plays and you hear nothing from the strings. I wanted once to hear everything, and this I achieved.
My intentions: to remain strictly in the style of Brahms and not to go farther than he himself would have gone if he lived today.
To watch carefully all the laws to which Brahms obeyed and not to violate them, which are only known to musicians educated in his environment."

(Letter to Alfred Frankenstein, San Francisco Chronicle, March 1939)

Maestro Bamert explained to the orchestra that Schoenberg orchestrated the piece the way he believed Brahms would have at the time (1937), given the more advanced methods and trends of orchestration.  According to reports from the audience, the piece was every bit as captivating from out in the hall as it was onstage.

The 1st bassoon part features some of the most difficult passages I've ever encountered.  This one beginning in measure 454 of the second movement is an example:

The movement is in a moderately fast 3 beats per measure.  The.high B grace note is problematic - in fact, without the high B grace notes, the passage would be easily playable.  Bassoons vary somewhat in the placement of the left thumb keys.  On my bassoon, the high B (C) key is a bit farther away from the whisper key than I'd like.  That's typical of newer Heckels.  It may seem that an obvious solution is to leave the thumb off the whisper key for the G which precedes the high B. (The high G still plays without the whisper key.)  However, that doesn't help as much as one would expect.   It only confuses the left thumb because of its prior programming!  For me, the odds of nailing the high B grace note did not seem to be increased by eliminating the whisper key on G.

The first flute also plays the passage, an octave higher, and for reasons unclear to me, it always seems difficult to tune passages written this way (with the bassoon in the high range and the flute an octave higher).  The high A was particularly difficult to tune with the flute in my case.  In the orchestra, it is much easier to hear instruments (or voices) behind you than those in front of you.  Also, in general, the higher instruments in the wind section tune to the lower instruments.  For those reasons, the majority of the burden for tuning this passages falls on the flute player's shoulders.  It often helps to have a chat about that so that the flute player knows that you are counting on him/her to tune to you.  I always like to reassure the player that I will do everything I can to play each note in tune so as to ease the tuning burden. 

Suffice it to say that this passage was nerve-racking despite lots of slow practicing.  I strongly recommend cleaning out the bocal before playing this piece.  (That helps with reliability of the high notes.) 

Another great challenge begins in bar 618, in movement III:

It's in 3, and although the tempo is not terribly fast, it's fast enough to cause great concern for the first and second bassoonists.  The other woodwinds are involved, but only the bassoons play in this octave.  Although these 32nd notes are mostly lost in the orchestral texture, it is our goal to fulfill the composer's wishes, even when doing so is nearly impossible.

The 4th movement is perhaps most frustrating of all, bassoon-wise.  Check out the 3 measure beginning at 856:

The tempo is fast (presto!).  It may be possible to single tongue (for bassoonists with really fast single tongues) but I recommend preparing to double tongue.  That way you'll be ready for any tempo and won't have to worry about switching back and forth between single and double.  Ideally, a good double tongue cannot be distinguished from a single tongue anyway, so there's no reason not to double tongue.  But first, this passage is best practiced all slurred, slowly at first, gradually increasing the tempo, to make sure that the fingers are totally and reliably even. 

It is not reasonable for the left thumb to depress the whisper key for the high Gs or G#s in this passage.  The left thumb, which has been programmed to depress the whisper key for high G and G#, just has to be re-programmed for this passage, through much repetition.  I also use the short F# fingering (LH: half hole, 2,3 + Eflat key; RH: 1).  This passage is exposed!

So is this one:

Comparatively, this one is a lot easier, that is, until measure 873 arrives with its entanglement of fingerings for G, F and Eflat.  This longer passage really benefits from double tonging.  Even if one is able to single tongue at the conductor's chosen tempo for this movement, I believe it is necessary to double tongue for the sake of velocity.  Single-tonguing is too likely to become bogged down.

The following passage beginning at 1078 is doubled in the second bassoon part.  The high Bflats in this passage make things interesting.  Maybe Schoenberg added the second bassoon to this to increase the odds successful execution (I'm not sure):

This masterpiece (Brahms Symphony No. 5!) is wonderful to listen to, and performing it is quite an adventure.  I think that most bassoonists would agree that the massive challenges are worth dealing with in exchange for the opportunity to play the Brahms-Schoenberg Piano Quartet, Op. 25 arranged for Orchestra.