August 2011


Image © Lou Denim/EMI Classics, borrowed from http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms

Proms Chamber Music 6: Martinů, Dutilleux, Prokofiev

I don’t go to chamber music concerts very often, and even more rarely ones where I don’t have a friend or two among the performers. It’s not that I dislike chamber music, but without complex orchestral textures and polyphonies, I find it difficult to get lost in the music in the same way. However, then along come two unmissable recitals in the same month, today’s in some ways quite the opposite of the previous – Pahud in bright noon sunshine at the Cadogan as opposed to Kennedy dim-lit and pushing midnight at the Albert – but also not without its similarities.

I nearly didn’t go, for the perhaps odd reason that I know the repertoire too well. Many years ago, as undergrad music students, we all picked a ‘specialist’ performance period for our main instrument; mine was early-mid 20th century flute music, smack in the middle of which are situated the 1940s Martinů and Prokofiev Sonatas, and the Dutilleux Sonatine. In fact, the programme was pretty much exactly what 20-year-old me would have picked for a recital (with Messiaen’s Le Merle Noir as encore). Except that 20-year-old me was not running around giving recitals, but worried and depressed because of the burning pains of tendinitis creeping steadily up my arms when I practised – the same RSI which stopped me playing (much) for years, and because of which, 18 years later, I’m typing this on a computer with ergonomic keyboard and have a box full of the different bandages, splints and wrist supports I’ve needed at various times in order to play. This is not in any sense going to be a poor-wounded-me memoir, just a little personalisation regarding how tightly the emotions of the past can be tied to certain pieces of music, and make one wary around them. Anyway, I then thought, get over yourself and your stupid wrists, it’s the principal flute of the Berlin Phil, playing stuff you know you like. Duh.

Emmanuel Pahud is not the bad boy of the flute world. Fresh and scrubbed, in a neat rumple-free suit and unnecessary tie, he looked improbably bright-eyed and perky. This would normally be concerning – if there’s one thing I dislike, it’s prim, pretty and polite flute playing – but I’ve heard him on recordings and with the BPO, so knew to pay no more attention to the going-to-an-interview-at-a-bank outfit than I do to beloved Nigel K dressing in clothes randomly pulled from someone’s dirty laundry basket. While obviously in possession of a gorgeous smooth legato across the registers, and filigree delicacy when required, what I like about Pahud is that he gives it welly, and plays around with tone and articulation effects, including sometimes allowing the kind of rough edges that remind you that the sound comes from human lips and lungs (and would have prim, polite flautists, who go through their recordings editing out every trace of breath or buzz, throwing their limp hands in the air in horror). I can imagine why some don’t like his style in certain repertoire, but for this kind of thing, it’s perfect.

So, Martinů was first up, and – typical – within half a minute I’m remembering the evil, snide old bitch of a flute teacher I was sent to in my first year at uni, and her weirdly poor sense of rhythm when it came to really-not-that-challenging 7/8 time sigs. The Martinů was one of the last sonatas I studied with her (and, neatly, the Prokofiev was one of the first I tackled with the teacher I left her for, Simon Desorgher). Anyway, having got those memories out of the way early on, I was able to enjoy the rest of the piece. I could go into detailed bar-by-bar analysis if required, but why? Martinů and Dutilleux were very enjoyable. Mr P gave a little talk between them, which was particularly interesting in terms of Dutilleux’s tone colours and “joy of sound”, although his comment about choice of fluttertongue technique “depending whether you are more gifted with the throat or with your tongue” caused two ladies near me to change colour.

The Prokofiev is my favourite modern flute sonata. (I expect my friends would assume it was Poulenc, but actually that’s my favourite flute sonata out of the ones I feel confident enough about to play in public. (*Aside* For anyone who was at Debbie’s birthday party, I can assure you I play it with greater accuracy without the copious quantities of wine in me.) Anyway, Prokofiev. Brilliant piece, although – no offense to Eric Le Sage’s piano – I always thought it deserved full orchestral backing, and would make a cracking addition to the concerto repertoire. (And for once, rather than flutes borrowing from the violin repertoire, they’ve tried to nick one of ours – to the extent of begging the composer himself to rewrite it for violin). It needs to sing, but also to shriek, whisper and growl; it requires technical acrobatics and poise, emotional intensity and a sense of humour, wine-soaked languidness and too-much-caffeine jitters. All these were present (although probably not literally in the case of the booze), plus the most ferocious spit-and-fur-flying, take-no-prisoners physical assault on the 4th movement that I’ve ever heard, which was incredibly exciting to be in the same room as, and which I hope manages to come across to some extent on the broadcast.

This is what live music is all about.

Thinking about it, my pick of Merle Noir for encore is all wrong for following Prokofiev, and although I would love to hear him play it live sometime, the frothy but lovely Fauré Fantaisie (another from the Paris Conservatoire flute competition Greatest Hits Songbook) was much more suitable for re-establishing one’s composure (for performers and audience alike). I happened to be leaving the building at the same time as Mr P, and saw him stop for a few autographs and smiley photos with fans, before being bundled into a taxi to the airport for an evening concert in another country. Nice guy too, then. And another musician to add to the list of concert schedules I’ll now be keeping an eye on.

Advertisements

Image borrowed from http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms

Prom 31: Kennedy plays Bach

I was both very excited and rather apprehensive about this concert, and anyone who has read my previous post on Nigel Kennedy will understand why. I was looking forward to my favourite violinist playing one of the best composers in history, but also steeled for a fair amount of waiting around, whimsical anecdotes, and interminable prog rock noodlings. The 10pm start time came and went, but the 20 min delay was, as Mr K was keen to point out, “not late because of me”, and probably due to a minor security incident or the like, plus it taking a while to ram the auditorium, arena and gallery to a full capacity rarely seen at Late Night proms.

And then, with a minimum of fuss, 45-odd minutes of solid, brilliant, wonderful Bach. On the way in I’d overheard the conversation of a couple of what I’m going to (perhaps unfairly) call ClassicFM fans who, while very keen on Nigel, were rather concerned about this JS Bach, and whether the music was going to be “all stuffy” and “difficult”. All credit to them for giving it a go, and I hope the highly-charged, exuberant and joyous Partita No. 3 in E (Prelude), which opened the concert, won them over.

The main work, though, was the Partita No. 2 in Dm in its entirety – something of a marathon. *Digression alert* Violinists – were you aware we flutes have been appropriating your music all this time? I have a couple of well-thumbed and scribbled-on volumes of unaccompanied Bach nicked from various partitas, suites, sonatas, etc. for violin, cello and whatever – all transposed to fit the flute range, broken chord appoggiaturas substituting for double-stops. And they work, because the magical thing about Bach is that it sounds good on ANY instrument. Really – any. Even tenor saxophone – I know, I’ve tried. (Didn’t work so well on theremin, but this is almost certainly due to my lack of skill – sure it would sound great if Clara Rockmore was playing it.) Anyway, the 1st movement of the Dm is one particularly frequently hacked through by young flautists, as it was on one of the Grade lists (VII?), so it was very good to actually hear it on the originally-intended instrument, and more to the point, not hacked through, but played thoughtfully, lovingly, and with each phrase given the depth it deserves. And for the rest of the movements, I’ll go with ‘stunning’, but please help yourselves from the superlative buffet.

It’s rare for me to say this, but after the marathon of intensity and virtuosity, I was actually ready for something light – a bit of baroque-jazz crossover, even. Not only does Bach work on any instrument, but it can also take being swung without sounding daft – as has been demonstrated by Swingles et al. Here, Mr K was joined by friends (whose names I didn’t catch) on double bass, guitar and drum (just the one) and used the Air “on the G string” as a launch pad for a riot of quote-heavy semi-improvised jazz shenanigans. Having been described as “all of you cats is like the most knowledgeable in the world”, no less, the audience had not emitted a single clap between movements of the Partita (saving them all up for thunderous applause at the end), but were also aware that in the jazz tradition it is correct etiquette to applaud as each member of the band finishes their solo. The obvious tension between knowing one is supposed to show appreciation at a certain point, and the orchestral fan’s ‘but- but- there’s music playing and we don’t want to make a noise and so miss a single note of it!’ was quite amusing.

Encores were all Fats Waller tunes, and they were charming. At around 11.40pm, the audience reluctantly let the man go, hopefully to enjoy a few well-deserved beers and bask in the afterglow of an awesome gig.