National Symphony Orchestra Principal Bassist Robert Oppelt just put up a new post on his website covering his approach to the bass solo from the third movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major. Here is an excerpt discussing his fingering approach for the Mahler solo:
So, why is this solo so challenging? It’s a children’s round in minor, right? No big deal. Well, sometimes the simplest sounding music is the most revealing and difficult to pull off.
First, the notes lie in a fairly perilous region on either side of the transition zone to thumb position. This means there’s an inherent insecurity which can feel like a tight rope walk as you pass between each region. A problem with playing it all on the G string is that there are too many long shifts which sound almost glissed. For example, A-A-D on the G string produces two virtually unavoidable slides, which I think is out of character with the feeling Mahler wants. (And he was meticulous about notating glisses.) Plus, it is risky to make a big shift for the high A four times and expect to hit them all in tune.
I like to utilize the D string from the fourth measure on. The risk with it is that the open strings will be out of tune after two movements of aggressive playing, which could be quite apparent on the harmonics. I try to tune the G, D, and A strings as quickly and quietly as possible before the movement starts. In this last run of performances, I even tried to use an electronic tuner hooked up with an input cable clipped to the bridge. For the most part it worked, though I had trouble getting a good read on the device for the last performance. I think next time I’ll look into a tuner that I can just stick onto the bass.
The notes which are harmonics are pretty much impossible to vibrate on, but that’s o.k. One should observe that the best singers (think Fischer-Dieskau) do not mechanically vibrate every note in legato phrases, but provide the “sinew” of a phrase with some “white”, vibrato-less passing tones. Sometimes, the more perfect and mechanical a passage the less musical it is. So, you’ve got artistic precedence to not be dogmatic about vibrato.
The bow should make up for that by connecting the notes smoothly and with clarity. Though the notes are under a large slur, occasionally, a little extra articulation or weight on the notes from the bow hand helps give that connected vocal quality. Too much of it can sound jerky, however.
My fingering reduces the number of long shifts down to one. For that one (the last high A), I always look for a finger print on the finger board as a target. If the light is bright on stage and you have enough natural oil on your fingers, you can see a print that was left from the previous A. I have to confess that I couldn’t find it my last performance when I expect to, and I may have paid a small price for that. At least, if you slightly miss that one it will be less apparent because the bassoon is playing and effectively fading you out. Some bassists just play a tuning harmonic instead of going back up – it’s a personal preference thing – but it sounds a little weak to me. Also, one should note that there are commas (or breaths) between every measure. I observe the small breaks, but I think Mahler’s intended purpose was to ensure a good start at the beginning of each measure. Conductors might have their own opinion about it, however.
Robert also provides some historical context for the piece and how one approach this with Mahler’s intentions in mind, plus he provides a notated version of the solo with his own fingerings, bowings, and performance notations. You can check out his notated version of the solo here, and check out his complete post here.
- Rostropovich story from Robert Oppelt’s site
- Bass hedge from Robert Oppelt
- Robert Oppelt’s double bass site – an introduction
- Ira Gold interview
- Michael Hovnanian interview