musings of a professional bassoonist

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Brahms Violin Concerto

Last week the Columbus Symphony performed the Brahms Violin Concerto with soloist Gil Shaham and our music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni. It was an amazing concert, as confirmed by the enthusiastic audience packed into the Southern Theatre in downtown Columbus.

It's important for bassoonists to focus on world-class musicianship as demonstrated by artists such as Gil Shaham, lest we allow the technical hurdles of our instrument to divert us from our primary goal.  Here's a stunning example of his playing:



What an honor it was to be onstage with such a musician!  In order to prepare, I sought a very smooth reed which played  pianissimo reliably.  Reeds like that also enable delicate attacks and tapers at the ends of notes.  These are the reeds I always prefer, actually, since they offer the player the most control.

The 1st movement requires a great deal of smooth, discreet and in tune playing from the 1st bassoon, as evidenced by the passages below:


For the dotted half F#s and C#s, it's a good idea to figure out the best fingerings for your chosen reed in advance.  I used my standard F#3 (LH: 2 + Eflat key; RH: 1+2+4) followed by the short C# (LH: 1+2+3+C# key+low D key) followed by alternate F# (with the right hand little finger F# key).  Intonation is the top priority, and smoothness is also important.  The eighths following the dotted halves are traditionally played with a tasteful bit of rubato, in the style of the piece. 

The bassoon enters with a smooth line in D major at the end of the violin cadenza:


In my experience, the tranquillo can be achieved only with a reed which allows it.  That's why I spend so much time seeking the right reed for a piece like this which requires such subtlety from the bassoon.  Also, this is one of those passages in which it's easy for the bassoon lag behind, because only the strings and the violin soloists are playing with the bassoon.  If the bassoonist relies on his/her ear, lagging behind is the probable result because of the physical distance between the strings and the bassoon.  At times like this, it's critical to watch the conductor.  (Light travels faster than sound!)

The slow movement's glorious wind writing features the 1st oboe as soloist.  The 2nd bassoon part commonly appears on 2nd bassoon audition lists as a test of intonation, control, and familiarity with repertoire.  The opening major third chord is played by 2 bassoons only and is traditionally played with a straight tone (no vibrato), especially since 2 horns later join the chord.  (As a general rule, all chords are best played without vibrato!)  The dynamics and hairpins can be exaggerated for maximum impact, but without ever overpowering the 1st oboe.

The 1st bassoon arpeggios beginning in measure 22 are open to interpretation.  Some conductors like them to be quite pianissimo; others like them brought out more. It's best to choose a middle-of-the road approach (not too hushed, yet not too outgoing) until the conductor weighs in.

In the last 2 measures of the Piu largemente above features a dialogue between the violin soloist and the 1st bassoon.  Again, that subtle and flexible reed which allows tapered note endings is a plus.

At the Poco piu presto in the 3rd movement shown below, the 1st bassoon and 1st clarinet enter with grace notes before the second beat after a very brief violin cadenza:


It's helpful to know that the orchestra is silent in the 1st beat of the Poco piu presto.  That's why I always listen to recordings of the pieces I'm about to perform, even if I think I know the piece.  It would be all too easy to forget about a detail like that, and it's not good to be caught off guard!


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