musings of a professional bassoonist

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Mendelssohn Symphony No. 3


Mendelssohn Symphony No.3 "Scottish" in A minor may not appear very often on bassoon audition lists, but there are certainly many reasons why it could.  Some of those reasons occur in exposed passages, and some in tutti passages.

Mendelssohn's 3rd was featured on this week's Columbus Symphony concerts conducted by guest conductor Jeffrey Kahane (who also dazzled us as piano soloist in Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4!).  Perhaps it's the second movement of this symphony which woodwind players worry about the most:


It's especially challenging at a fast clip.  During our first rehearsal of this movement I consulted my metronome and found our tempo to be around 133 to the quarter note.  While much of the bassoon writing for this movement is tutti, there are several exposed staccato woodwind passages as exemplified by the one beginning with the 16th note pickups to letter C.  The second bassoon joins in later with its own staccato solo.  Lightness is key here for the chattering woodwinds.  Throughout this movement, I think that either single-or double-tonguing can work.  I try to make double- and single-tonguing interchangeable, and the way to do that is to constantly strive to make double-tongued passages sound no different from single-tongued.

That means, of course, that the technique of double-tonguing must be practiced quite a bit.  (The reason I'm pointing that out is because I never found it necessary to practice single-tonguing except for coordinating the tongue and fingers, and that has always been a fingering issue rather than a tonguing issue.)  I like to think of double-tonguing as a choice rather than a necessity and as I said, that requires regular maintenance of the technique.  The main reasons I choose double-tonguing are for more lightness and for flexibility of tempo (if the strings take off, for example, I don't want to be encumbered by a lagging single tongue).

The woodwinds share the repeated dotted eighth and sixteenths after C.  For that passage, it's important to not allow the sixteenths to become heavy and bogged down.  I decided to double tongue there because it sounds a lot lighter and double-tonguing allows the 16ths to be shorter.  It also seems easier to blend in with the other woodwinds.

The first 4 notes of the movement are unison for two bassoons and must be in tune, of course, with each other and with the pitch standard of the orchestra.  The sound should be as strong as possible without ruining the intonation.

The other passages above are tutti and it's hard to know whether or not the bassoons are heard.  It depends upon the hall, the volume of the rest of the orchestra, and the volume of the 2 bassoons.  At any rate, we always aim to nail each and every passage in our parts, whether it's audible or not, right?

At letter F below is a very challenging tutti passage. I either double tongue the whole thing or begin with single tonguing and switch to double for the last 4 tongued measures (where "DT" is  marked in the part). 


I think that it can be too much to try to sustain single tonguing for such a lengthy passage - it becomes nearly impossible to keep up with the rest of the orchestra if the tempo is on the fast side.  That's why I switch to double tonguing in the middle, so that I can be sure to keep moving with the rest of the orchestra (which is definitely not slowing down!).

A few passages in this symphony are bona fide solos, in which the 1st bassoon should suddenly emerge from the orchestral texture.  Some woodwind players speak of "spinning the air" for a passage like this, which makes sense to me.  The way a bassoonist blows into the instrument for a solo like this is different from normal blowing - it's more focused and intense, or "spun" if you will. That approach applies to the bassoon solo from the 1st movement after C:


However, the bassoon solo pictured below, from the 4th movement, is very different.  The mood is somber, and although intensity increases somewhat on the crescendos, it remains a pianissimo solo, even when the first clarinet joins.  This is an instance where the bassoonist should not worry about projecting, since the conductor will see to it that the accompanying strings are not too loud.


The solo ends on a low A.  I think it's a good idea to find a muffled fingering which works for  your bassoon.  On my bassoon I add the low F key and the alternate F# key, both with the little finger of the right hand.  Thank heavens for that fingering, because I attempted to use the normal low A fingering during the 1st rehearsal and found it to be unacceptable.  That note has a natural "growl" to the sound, even in the softest dynamics, with the standard fingering.  The growl is very slight, of course, but in my opinion it's better to muffle the note for this very delicate phrase ending.

We just completed our 3rd performance of this program, thus ending a very enjoyable week with our guest Maestro Kahane, whose performance of the Beethoven Concerto No. 4 was so convincing that one could
easily imagine that Beethoven himself was at the keyboard!
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