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.



Amy said...

Wow! That is seriously interesting. I think I may just prop myself up with my laptop and bassoon and see if I can even play the notes, period! I have been able to successfully play up to C on the bassoon I am currently playing (some plastic student model that had been sitting in storage =( ), but getting C# has been a no-go, and I don't even know the fingering for high D yet. I'll have to go back and find the entry you wrote where it tackled the issues with it.

I love the slavic feel of Brahms. It's because of their instrumentation and character-laden passages that make me love both him and Dvorak. What a great piece!

B.S. said...

Amy, don't be discouraged if your attempts to play through these passages don't go well. These are some of the most difficult passages I've ever encountered! It's great that you're so ambitious, though.

Good luck!