The bassoon solo at m. 274 brings the Andantino full circle by recalling the pizzicato orchestration of the opening oboe solo (the actual melody, of course, appears throughout the movement). I recommend a tempo of at least ♩= 62-64, which is fast enough to maintain the singing quality of the line, yet slow enough to allow the finer nuances of the phrasing to come through. Many students have a bad habit of playing this solo much too slowly, and that only tends to highlight the problems discussed below.
Working to Eliminate “Notey-ness”
Complex key signatures like B♭ Minor can present a significant challenge when it comes to creating smooth, lyrical lines. The more complex fingerings of the notes, along with their more varied levels of resistance, can often cause the solo to sound “notey” and uneven.1 Fortunately, there are a couple of things that players can do to help eliminate this undesirable quality.
The first step is to work on the solo without vibrato, concentrating instead on producing a steady stream of air that can smoothly compensate for the varying resistances of each note (especially during the larger leaps). Next, work on minimizing and smoothing out the movement of the fingers themselves. They should not move with the same overt, military precision that we might expect when playing an excerpt like Till Eulenspiegel; instead, the fingers should be kept as close as possible to the keys and tone holes, and each should be closed with an easy and relaxed motion. This technique is often referred to as “legato fingering,” and I find it helpful to imagine the fingers moving in the same gentle manner that the tongue should articulate legato notes. David McGill also offers the following mental exercise:
Imagine that your fingers are held in place by cables pulling from above as well as from below. When the fingers close the keys or holes on the instrument they must go against the resistance of the upper cable and, when they open the key or hole, they must then do so with resistance from the lower, imaginary cable. But the fingers must not be tense while thinking of this concept.2
Many bassoonists prefer to play the second half of the solo very dramatically by adding a great deal of rubato on the repeated eighth notes in mm. 183, 185, and 187. Although I do pull back slightly on these notes, my interpretation is considered fairly simple and straightforward compared to many others.3 This is a solo, of course, but the bassoonist should not pull himself out of the music in some sort of self-important, soloistic display. These words from Tchaikovsky’s own description of the second movement should be taken into consideration when deciding how to approach the mood and phrasing of the solo:
[…] one is sad because so much is gone, past, and it is pleasant to remember one’s youth. And one regrets the past, yet has no wish to begin to live all over again. Life wearies one. It is pleasant to rest and to reflect.4
An interpretation with lots of dramatic pushing and pulling simply does not seem like an appropriate way to express these bittersweet sentiments. True, this section of the solo is marked espressivo, but I think we can convey this by singing a broader line—matching the movement of the strings from pizzicato to arco—along with a slightly more overt vibrato. The two included recordings that show the most restraint in pulling back on the repeated eighth notes are the 1984 Cleveland Orchestra and 1997 Chicago Symphony Orchestra recordings (the latter performed by David McGill).
A more practical reason why I disagree with lingering a great deal on the repeated notes is because it disrupts the flow of the underlying string accompaniment. Although McGill does pull back slightly, it is done in service of highlighting the note groupings, not to overdramatize the solo; the phrasing always stays within the overall tempo, which doesn’t force the strings to wait in limbo for the downbeat. Compare that interpretation to Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic performance, where it seems like the strings must wait a lifetime for the bassoonist to reach the downbeat (and at such a slow tempo, it almost seems like two lifetimes). McGill’s performance also shows the clearest note groupings and phrasing, which is similar to my interpretation shown in Example 20.1.
I have also added a few legato markings that can be executed by either lingering slightly on the note, giving the note slightly more vibrato, or some combination of the two. For example, I follow McGill’s advice to linger on the first note of the solo, while also adding a slightly faster vibrato—in good taste—to immediately draw in the listener’s attention. In m. 281, I stress the A♮ by adding a little extra vibrato without lengthening the actual sound of the note, whereas in the next bar I stress the A♮ mostly by lengthening it, with little change to the vibrato. These are the types of finer details that can make the phrasing more refined, as well as create an interpretation that is much more unique to each individual player.
Example 20.1. Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 4, Mvt. II – mm. 274 to 290, phrasing and note groupings
Intonation and Other Considerations
Intonation can be treacherous throughout this solo. I recommend practicing with a bass note drone to become comfortable adjusting the pitches based on the underlying harmonies; however, a familiarization with the absolute pitches of these notes (which can be developed with a regular tuner) should be in place first. Example 20.2 shows the pitches to drone in each measure, as well as some of the intonation adjustments we should be aware of. Our primary concern is with the thirds of the underlying major and minor triads; to adjust these notes to form pure triads, minor thirds should be played 16 cents higher than normal, while major thirds should be played 14 cents lower than normal.
Fifths of chords should also be raised 2 cents, but this amount is so trivial that it usually bears no real significance on our intonation considerations. However, many of the upper notes in the leaps here are also fifths of the harmonies, so it is important that we pay extra attention to getting them up to pitch (and ideally 2 cents higher). Make sure to support the upper notes with the airstream and higher voicings like “EEE,” and don’t let yourself pinch them up with the embouchure. The other important tuning consideration is to make sure the second eighth note in mm. 183, 185, and 187 (marked with plain arrows) are low enough to make the whole step between the first and second note of the measure sufficiently wide.
One last issue to mention is the morendo on the F2 over the last two bars of the movement. To help taper this note down to nothing, roll the second finger of the left hand over the second tone hole (Fingering 20.1). This will help keep the pitch up as the air stream decreases, but care must be taken to not cover up too much of the hole and actually cause the pitch to go flat.
Example 20.2. Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 4, Mvt. II – mm. 274 to 290, practice drones and intonation adjustments
1 A good example of this awkwardness is in Karajan’s recording with the Wiener Philharmoniker.
2 McGill, 175.
3 More accurately, I should say that since these repeated notes already have a natural tendency to slow down a bit, I do not consciously try to pull them back further.
4 Warrack, 136.