★★★★☆ The Swiss flautist brought a powerful energy to match that of the ACO.

City Recital Hall, Sydney
October 10, 2017

Swiss flautist Emmanuel Pahud’s relationship with the Australian Chamber Orchestra stretches back 14 years, since his Australian debut performing the premiere of Carl Vine’s Pipe Dreams with the orchestra in 2003. He would return a few years later to tour and record Vivaldi’s Flute Concertos. He began this concert on stage alone, however, kicking off a programme that swung from intimate solo works to dramatic ensemble pieces, with CPE Bach’s unaccompanied Flute Sonata in A Minor, Wq. 132.

Pahud is a powerful player, and he brought a rich, muscular low register to the bass notes of Carl Philipp Emanuel’s work, which imply a harmonic structure more complex than is normally presented by a single-line instrument. With a deft, subtle vibrato and plenty of freedom – not to mention a gloriously full tone – Pahud used colour to delineate the distinct lines, playing with utter conviction and personality. The second movement was bright and lively while the third danced, Pahud pushing his sound to the exciting knife-edge just short of cracking in the loud moments, offsetting this with delicate pianissimo sighs.

Emmanuel Pahud and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Photo © Zan Wimberley

CPE Bach’s work was paired with that of his father, both pieces written in the same year. Musicians assembled gradually on the tenebrous, crimson-lit stage as biting string entries carved out the opening of Bach’s Ricecar a 6 from The Musical Offering, in a bold, gritty arrangement of the keyboard work. Pahud joined the ensemble in the soloist’s position, but contributed more as a chamber musician, adding colourful highlights rather than as a virtuoso.

The band went flute-free for the first half’s finale, a writhing rendition of Ravel’s String Quartet, arranged for string orchestra by Richard Tognetti, whose bright, shimmering violin gilded the lush harmonies of the first movement, the ensemble pressing ever forward. The orchestra’s taut, rhythmic pizzicato was dispatched with joyous energy and spot-on ensemble in Assez vif – Très rythmé, while the dark-toned sound of Guest Principal Violist Rosalind Ventris was a highlight in the swelling lyricism of the third movement.  The strings took on a harder – just short of raucous – edge in the swarming opening of the finale, the ensemble channelling both furious energy and vibrant lyricism.

City Recital Hall faded to black for the opening of the second half, Pahud a shadowy silhouette as he performed Debussy’s Syrinx for solo flute. The theatricality was apt – Debussy wrote the music to accompany a scene in Gabriel Mourey’s 1913 play Psyché. Originally titled La Flûte de Pan, Louis Fleury, to whom the piece was dedicated, gave the  first performances, bringing it in to his concert rotation – it has since become a classic of the 20th-century flute repertoire. The work’s story is dramatic – the nymph Syrinx disguises herself as a water reed to avoid the amorous pursuit of the faun Pan. Foiled, the faun cuts the reed to fashion a flute, killing Syrinx.

Emmanuel PahudEmmanuel Pahud and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Photo © Zan Wimberley

Pahud’s slippery rendition was full of the drama and urgency of that scene. While for some this may have been an overly swift dispatching of the brief work – some interpretations tend more to the meditative or melancholy – there were some magical moments, Pahud sliding sinuously across the wider intervals.

While the unconventional launch into the Ricecar in the first half was slightly jolting, an almost seamless transition from the Syrinx to Franck’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, arranged here by Tognetti for flute and strings, kept the atmosphere charged between the works.

The strings made a gentler accompaniment to the Sonata than that usually created by the more percussive piano attacks, the work’s contours softened somewhat. Pahud brought plenty of body to his sound, rising above the strings and, where appropriate, punching out the high register notes, carving out the dramatic melodies with fierce passion. Without the pianistic thunder, this was a more organic, liquid rendition over all, but not without its own musical potency.

It was that energy and potency that typified the whole concert. The Australian Chamber Orchestra have found a kindred spirit in Emmanuel Pahud – both willing to experiment and push musical boundaries, propelled by a vivid energy and sense of musical conviction. In this performance, you could really hear the players feeding off each other, creating an exciting, almost relentless momentum.

The performance finished on a sweet note, Pahud and the band whipping out Debussy’s The Girl with the Flaxen Hair as their encore.