Immaculate Work from Flautist Pahud

United StatesUnited States Poulenc, Schubert, J.S. Bach, Mendelssohn: Emmanuel Pahud (flute), Alessio Bax (piano), presented by San Francisco Performances, Herbst Theater, San Francisco. 21.2.2018. (HS)

Poulenc — Sonata for Flute and Piano FP 164
Schubert — Sonata in A minor for Arpeggione and Piano D821
J.S. Bach — Sonata in E-flat major BWV 1031
Mendelssohn — Sonata in F major (1838, originally for violin)

Emmanuel Pahud can meet the most complex and demanding technical challenges on his golden flute, firing off volleys of rapid-fire phrases as if they were child’s play. For most of his recital Wednesday night in San Francisco, though, his focus was on more lyrical music-making, aiming more for heart than the head.

The silky, if slightly offbeat, phrases of Poulenc’s Sonata for Flute and Piano ushered in the recital, presented by San Francisco Performances in the cozy confines of Herbst Theater. Despite a swirl of an upbeat, executed with a sort of understated panache, the serpentine main tune proceeded with a whiff of sadness, and the slow movement’s long cantilena emerged with heartfelt directness. The burbling finale came off as more of a cheerful dance than a virtuoso turn. Pahud’s restraint was admirable.

Schubert’s gentle Arpeggione Sonata exposed an even more relaxed approach. Schubert wrote it for the arpeggione, a then-new instrument and a sort of cross between a guitar and a cello. Though the instrument quickly faded into obscurity, this graceful music survives in transcriptions for string instruments, guitar, clarinet, and flute.

Pahud, perhaps the world’s preeminent flutist, and his pianist, Alessio Bax, did not try to amp up Schubert’s serenity, but brought the audience to intermission on a wispy cloud of pleasantness, still waiting for an outburst of technical mastery.

The wait for fireworks continued through the Baroque elegance of Bach’s Sonata for Flute in E-flat major. Though the piece was written for harpsichord, Bax emphasized the piano’s softer texture by using a bit more pedal than one usually expects. For his part, Pahud aimed for dynamic shadings and tender articulation to give the score its shape.

Mendelssohn finally provided the means to show everything the flute can do in a transcription of the Sonata in F major. Written for the violin and never published in the composer’s lifetime, it was resurrected in 1952 by the violinist Yehudi Menuhin. It’s a barn-burner, bursting with effusive virtuosic effects, yet still in the buttoned-up Mendelssohn mold. The most extensive piece on the program, the sonata called for tremendous technical discipline coupled with a sense of freedom to make its eloquence speak. Pahud delivered in spades, even if Bax’s playing did not quite match his partner in clarity and crispness.

For an encore, a lovely transcription of Schumann’s charming and refined Fantasiestucke Op.73 No.2 — written for and usually played on clarinet — received a soulful take from Pahud and made the most of Bax’s prevailing softer style.

Harvey Steiman

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