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.