Prom 18 – Emmanuel Pahud brings two fascinating new flute concertos to the Proms

Beethoven, Dalbavie, Carter: Emmanuel Pahud (flute), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Thierry Fischer (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 28.7.2011 (CR)

Beethoven: Symphony No 1 in C major

Dalbavie: Flute Concerto (London première)

Elliott Carter: Flute Concerto (UK première)

Beethoven: Symphony No 7 in A major

This was the second of two Proms on consecutive nights for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, under the baton of Thierry Fischer. The programme was a curious mixture of the tried and tested and the new, with two symphonies by Beethoven and two new flute concertos, written for soloist Emmanuel Pahud.

The Beethoven symphonies were both stylishly played, with a clear, balanced sound and a good contrast between the light and heavy moments. Fischer gave a good sense of the overall architecture of both symphonies, with some exhilarating changes of dynamics, strong accents and clarity of articulation. I felt, however, that the potential for subtle shaping of individual phrases was not met, especially within the strings. The orchestral sound was uncomplicated, with elements of period instrument style, using minimal vibrato throughout. This was particularly impressive in the captivating opening of the second movement of the Seventh symphony, which was breathtaking in its soft dynamic and warm sound. I would have liked a little more from the movement’s main climax, but this was otherwise a high point in the concert for me.

Dalbavie’s flute concerto comes from the tradition of French repertoire, with a clear background in the Spectral language of Murail and Grisey. Dalbavie uses a small orchestra, and his well-conceived scoring creates a wonderful sense of flow between soloist and orchestra, with passages moving effectively between the solo line and the orchestral woodwind section. The coruscating opening features fast passagework, which was brilliantly and clearly executed by Pahud, with dazzling control and impressive projection. The subsequent slow section allows the flute to float over gentle orchestral textures, with elements of the opening material reappearing gradually. Dalbavie makes good use of the available orchestral colours and seems to encapsulate the soloist within the ensemble’s sound, while always giving the flute sufficient acoustic space to be clearly heard and allowing it to take the lead with melodic material. The concerto is a single movement work in a slow-fast-slow form, with melodic ideas from the opening linking all three sections together to give an enjoyable sense of unity.

The second concerto of the evening was Carter’s Flute Concerto (2007-8), heard here for the first time in the UK. This was stylistically very different from the Dalbavie, with fragmented material giving a sense of invention, combined with a connection with the past. There are stylistic hints in Carter’s writing which bring to mind the music of Schoenberg, Copland and even Mahler. A strong sense of American identity pervades the music and a wide range of textures and instrumental colours demonstrates Carter’s vivid aural imagination.

Pahud is undoubtedly one of the great living musicians; his sense of expression and communication transcends his instrument, and proves that the flute has as valid a place on the concert platform as the violin or piano. His tone is even throughout the instrument’s register, and he is able to project the sound so that balance is never an issue, even with an orchestral accompaniment.

The orchestra were excellent throughout both concertos, and the xylophone solo in the Dalbavie was both dazzling and memorable. Fischer, himself a flautist, seemed to have a real understanding of both of these works, presenting them with a sense of conviction and flair.

Carla Rees