The flautist, who juggles a gig with the Berlin Philharmonic and a solo career, talks about old flute favourites and pinching a violin hit.
Debussy’s Syrinx, which you perform on tour with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, is such a well-loved piece. Do you remember when you first heard it?
I don’t recall the first time, but I was a little kid. I started playing the flute at age six and it must have happened pretty early in my life. I’ve been playing this piece a lot as an encore after a concerto, so it’s one of my all-time favourites. It’s a very evocative piece – it’s supposed to be played in the dark. It was part of a music theatre salon setting. Debussy had been writing musical interventions and the flute player was supposed not to be seen but just heard, so it gives a stronger power to the instrument.
Playing it so often, has your approach evolved over time?
It has, definitely. I first recorded it a good 15 years ago, and then I was asked to record it again for a Debussy album project a year ago, and then I had another project where I was doing solo pieces and I thought I should record it one more time – because my view had evolved. It’s the kind of music that every time you read it, you think and reflect about it, or you just want to express something differently. This is something you find in Debussy’s music, but you can also find it in Bach’s music. Every time you approach those pieces they’re so powerful, that there are so many ways to look at them. And it’s a never-ending story, a quest that’s happening throughout your life.
Emmanuel Pahud. Photo © Fabien Monthubert
The Debussy and the CPE Bach unacompannied sonata, which you’re also playing, are such important pieces in the flute repertoire. Were there any particular recordings or interpretations that inspired you?
Not so much recordings, but hearing them performed live by my teachers – like Aurèle Nicolet, my predecessor at the Berlin Philharmonic. These people were really trendsetting with new ways of playing music on the modern flute in the second half of the 20th century. A whole generation of flute players benefited from their apex, such as James Galway, for example. We are inheriting this wonderful tradition of performing on the modern flute. We owe a lot to the French flute school in which I was trained. When the instrument was new at the end of the 19th century, these people wrote the methods and the books and the exercises of how to play and how to master these new instruments.
What are the challenges in playing CPE Bach’s music today?
I believe that music has always been contemporary, that composers have always been writing for the people of their time. So the challenge – however old or new that music may be – is to make it accessible to the people of our time. Today, if you play in a large concert hall such as the Sydney Opera House or even Angel Place on a period instrument, it’s not going to work the same way it worked in the castles and smaller music salons of the 17th or 18th century. With modern instruments we’re able to carry across a hall in a more powerful way. I’m not saying it’s better or worse, it’s just the instruments we use. But what is for sure is that guys like CPE Bach, or Mozart, or Bach, if they were living today, they would be doing electronic music and writing the craziest things – experimenting with new instruments and new ways of approaching music. So our challenge as performers is to bring the spirit of what is in between the lines, behind those notes, to the people of today.
So what was innovative or forward-looking about CPE Bach’s music?
With Bach’s son, when you have such a powerful and authoritarian musical father, you have to find your own way. This is what is miraculous about CPE Bach’s music. He’s trying to escape the rules that his father is using in his own music, and trying all the time to break with those rules. So there are a lot of options in his music, a lot of dramatic action, a lot of expressive action also. It was very new in this time, and something revolutionary that was going to lead the way for the next generation of more Romantic spirits.
Your CPE Bach concertos disc came out last year. Is there much difference between playing the solo music and the concertos?
The only difference is that in the concertos he uses the flute as a melodic instrument a lot more. In the solo pieces, he tries to make an illusion of harmony. So the chords are embedded in the writing of something that looks like a melodic line but has also harmonic signification and progression. And then, as opposed to his father, he would break this harmonic progression. Where it would be the climax for JS Bach, it became the place to break off and go elsewhere for CP Bach. I find it thrilling and very dramatic as well as very expressive.
The Franck Violin Sonata has been incredibly popular as a flute transcription. Why do you think it’s been so embraced by flute players and audiences?
Because it has such strong melodic lines, it’s a very suitable piece for the flute. It gives us some challenges in terms of breath, and power in the lower register. The violinists usually use their low G string and this is where we have to power up a little bit as flute players so as to come up with what people have in their ears. It’s just such wonderful music that everybody wants
to play it. If I played the saxophone, I guess I’d play it on the saxophone.
Richard Tognetti’s arrangement uses strings instead of piano. How will that change the way the music works?
Richard is an incredible musician and cultural actor, an exceptional guy and talent. He sent a file for me to listen to his arrangements when he performed it himself with the ACO and I trust him totally to make it fascinating and bring in some new light and new shade. There is a rhythmical feel in the second movement that is so present with the piano, it works very differently with the strings, and I’m really looking forward to discovering this.
You first played with the ACO 14 years ago and you’ve been back plenty of times since. What keeps you returning?
The ACO plays any kind of music without a complex. The musical tradition in Australia is not as heavy as it is in Europe. It’s a very refreshing experience for me to play with a bunch of players who are ready to go and try out things that are just sometimes crazy, wild, but are so refreshing. I found the musicianship of this ensemble wonderful. The leadership of Richard Tognetti is incredible. It takes everybody together into another musical stratosphere, which involves so much communicating with other musicians, but also with the audience. We’ll also be on tour in Europe and in Asia, and every time we tour we’re looking forward to the next project. As soon as we start one and start touring it, we’re already thinking about what could be the next possibility.
Emmanuel Pahud performs with the Australian Chamber Orchestra on their national tour September 30 – October 13.