Thursday, February 22, 2018

Imaginative Conclusion to SFP Virtuosi Series

Last night in Herbst Theatre, San Francisco Performances wrapped up its 2017–2018 Virtuosi Series with a recital by flutist Emmanuel Pahud accompanied by pianist Alessio Bax. Curiously, only one of the four sonatas on the program was written for the modern flute. This was the sonata completed in 1957 by Francis Poulenc (first performed later that year by Jean-Pierre Rampal accompanied by the composer). The only other “flute sonata” was Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1031 in E-flat major, which was certainly not intended for a contemporary version of either a flute or a keyboard instrument. Each of these was followed by a sonata written for an instrument other than the flute. Poulenc was followed by Franz Schubert’s D. 821 in A minor, originally intended for arpeggione, while Bach was followed by an early violin sonata in A major by Felix Mendelssohn.

In the midst of this diversity, a variety of interesting interconnections emerged. Perhaps the most explicit of these was the way in which Poulenc used the Cantilena in the middle of his sonata to reflect back on the middle movement of BWV 1031, a Siciliano that has been popularized through any number of different versions. However, while BWV 1031 comes across as the more “abstract” of the two flute sonatas, Poulenc evokes more complex emotional dispositions merely through the tempo specifications of the outer movement, Allegro malinconico and Presto giocoso. Pahud’s reading of the text provided an insightful account of both the melancholy and the joyous, always establishing his expressiveness through Bax’ supportive accompaniment.

That approach to expressiveness continued through his approach to playing Schubert. Putting aside any of the string-family instruments that usually play D. 821 (primarily cello or viola), the attentive listener could be easily reminded of Schubert’s many gifts in writing for solo voice through Pahud’s approach to the score. Rather than try to imitate any of the effects of bowing or pizzicato (which would have been an absurd undertaking), Pahud’s approach to breath control evoked a singer taking on a setting far more sophisticated than the simple repetitions associated with the verses of a strophic text. In other words the listener could enjoy Schubert for his own sake, but the Schubert skilled in the subtleties of human breath, rather than instrumental technique.

The Mendelssohn sonata, on the other hand, did not fare quite as well. One got the impression that the composer was only interested in dexterous virtuosity, more attentive to the notes themselves than to the physical efforts necessary to establish those notes. My guess is that harmonica legend Larry Adler could have pulled off the same score with equally impressive results. Nevertheless, Pahud’s selection provided a sure-fire way to conclude his program in high spirits.

Pahud’s encore also departed from the instrumental intentions of the composer. He played the second of the three “fantasy pieces” (Fantasiestücke) published as Robert Schumann’s Opus 73. Schumann wrote these for clarinet and piano but indicated that the clarinet part was also suitable for viola or cello. Probably using the arrangement published by Jacques Larocque, Pahud reflected the higher-register sonorities of the clarinet; but the spectral qualities of his instrument served up a somewhat less aggressive stance than one usually gets from the clarinet. This allowed him to highlight the light touch that Schumann suggested in his tempo marking with a rhetoric significantly different from that of any of the instruments the composer had in mind.

The opening measures of Larocque’s Schumann arrangement (from IMSLP, licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 license)

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