New Light Cast on the Piccolo’s Possibilities: Piccolo virtuoso Peter Verhoyen

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Milhaud, Auric, Poulenc, Vande Ginste, Ravel, Damare: Peter Verhoyen (piccolo), Zoe Smith (piano). Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff. 10.3.2017. (GPu)

Darius Milhaud – Exercice Musical
Georges Auric – Scherzo
Francis Poulenc – Vilanelle; Sonata for Oboe and Piano
Stéphane Vande Ginste – Orphée ou le petit bestiaire
Maurice Ravel – Tzigane
Eugene Damaré – Le merle blanc

By my reckoning, I have been attending concerts, with varying frequency, for some 56 years; this was, however, the first time I had heard a recital for piccolo and piano. I hadn’t realized what instructive fun such a recital could be when the soloist was as gifted, enterprising and personable as Peter Verhoyen. It wouldn’t be altogether hyperbolic to say that it was something of a revelation.

Verhoyen is principal piccolo of the Royal Flanders Philharmonic and has taught masterclasses in flute and piccolo all over the world. Verhoyen’s absolute mastery of the piccolo and his ability to produce (and deploy with sensitivity and intelligence) colours one doesn’t normally associate with the instrument make it possible for him to present an engaging recital involving both music originally written for the piccolo and music ‘appropriated’ for it.

He began with three pieces (by Milhaud, Auric and Poulenc) from the collection Pipeaux Melodies, made up of compositions by several French composers, and eminently suitable for performance on the piccolo. Of the three, that by Milhaud was, to my ears, the most memorable, attractively tender and quintessentially French. (Poulenc’s ‘Vilanelle’ was pure delight too).

More Poulenc followed, in the form of a transcription of his Sonata for Oboe and Piano (1962). Written in the year before Poulenc’s death, the sonata is dedicated to the memory of Prokofiev. Beforehand, knowing this work in its original form, I wondered whether the sorrowful third movement (‘Déploration’) would survive performance on piccolo. I needn’t have worried; Verhoyen’s interpretation was both fully expressive and properly dignified (save for one moment of shrillness); so, indeed, was the opening ‘Elégie’ too. By way of contrast, the Scherzo which separates these two movements was full of energy and vitality. A hearing of this performance alone would surely have been enough to persuade any unprejudiced listener of the potential of the piccolo.

The work by Stéphane Vande Ginste which followed was specifically written for the piccolo and was, indeed, commissioned by Peter Verhoyen. The concert programme referred to it simply as ‘Le petit bestiaire’, but I have seen it referred to elsewhere as ‘Orphée ou le petit bestiaire’. The fuller title makes the ‘meaning’ of the work clearer. It is made up of instrumental responses to four of the short poems in Apollinaire’s Le bestiaire ou Cortège d’Orphée (1911). The four poems chosen by the composer, ‘La chenille’ (the caterpillar), ‘Le Chat’, ‘Le serpent’ and ‘Le hibou’ can be seen to trace the arc of a human life and, if we keep the figure of Orpheus in mind, as being specifically concerned with the course of an artist’s life and death (as Verhoyen suggested in his introductory remarks). The four lines of ‘La chenille’ instruct poets (and other artists) to “work hard … with good cheer”, since “butterflies, for all their graces, /Are merely caterpillars who persevere”. ‘Le chat’ is a poem of happy domestic life, a life implicitly destroyed by ‘Le serpent’, a creature who “has got it in for beauty”, whose victims include “Eve, Cleopatra and Eurydice” – the last, of course, being the much-loved wife of Orpheus (phrases from the poems are quoted from the translations by Robert Chandler). The sequence ends with a musical translation of Apollinaire’s lines on the owl:

Mon pauvre couer est un hibou
Qu’on cloue, qu’on décloue,qu’on recloue.
De sang, d’ardeur, il est àbout.
Tous ceux qui m’aiment, je les loue.

The exhausted heart, nailed and renailed like the owl (there was long-held traditional belief that nailing an owl to the door of a house or a farm building would ward off evil) can endure no longer.

Vande Ginste’s music articulated the poems well – I liked, for example, the way in ‘La chenille’ that some ascending runs for the piccolo embodied the difficult ‘ascent’ from caterpillar to butterfly or, if one likes, from student to finished artist and the playfulness and warmth of an untroubled life in ‘Le Chat’. The whole is an interesting and thought-provoking piece, a persuasive illustration of how ‘serious’ music can be written for the piccolo.

Having told his audience, at the beginning of the recital, that he wanted to show that the piccolo could do much more than just imitate birdsong or lead a Parisian polka band, with a humour that seemed typical of the man, Verhoyen closed his programme by playing a work which showed the piccolo doing both those very things! Pierre Eugene Damaré was an important figure in the history of the piccolo. A virtuoso player of the instrument, who gave concerts around the world, from early in the 1870s, while being based in Paris. He wrote almost 500 works for the piccolo, of which ‘La merle blanc’ (The white blackbird) was Opus 161, dating from 1890, its full title being La merle blanc: Polka Fantasia. I was altogether unfamiliar with it, but it proved to be the sort of light music which is hard to resist (why should one want to?) and which made one feel that a seat in a concert hall was a kind of imprisonment, such is the urge to dance that the piece provokes. As she had been throughout, Zoe Smith, a member of staff at the RWCMD was excellent in the role of accompanist, fully deserving of the onstage plaudits (and kisses) that Peter Verhoyen bestowed on her.

Before closing his recital with such a triumphantly enjoyable piece from the piccolo’s own repertoire, Peter Verhoyen had played another ‘theft’ from another instrument, an arrangement of Ravel’s Tzigane. Unfortunately, this proved a step too far for the instrument. Though the result had charm and some passages of real beauty, in the transition from the violin, too much of the work’s gipsy flavor and sheer intensity was lost. For all of Verhoyen’s Herculean (and virtuosic) efforts we were, at least briefly, reminded of the piccolo’s limitations. For those who would like to hear this piece (and some of Verhoyen’s other ‘appropriations), there is a 2016 CD on the Ectcetera label, La gazza ladra (a typically witty title!) on which Verhoyen can be heard making the case for the instrument he so obviously loves. I, at least, was won over by hearing him make that case ‘live’.

Glyn Pursglove

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