Pahud Explodes in Bach Concertos

pahud-cpe-bach

C.P.E. BACH: Flute Concertos: in A min., Wq 166/H 431; in G, Wq 169/H 445; in D min., Wq 22/H 425 /Emmanuel Pahud, flautist; Kammerakademie Potsdam; Trevor Pinnock, conductor / Warner Classics 825646496433

Apropos of my last article regarding the dearth of exciting or challenging music on classical radio stations,I double dog dare any classical station in America to play the first flute concerto on this record on the air. And not just in the morning drive-time slot, but any time during the day. They won’t because it’s the kind of music to give the average classical radio listener coronary arrest. The manic tempos, the jagged rhythms, the harmonic daring of this work are almost on a par with some of the most outré compositions of today. But as I’ve said many times, that’s how far ahead of his time C.P.E. Bach was.

Indeed, the general contours and direction of this concerto,and most of the movements that follow, are more on a par with many of his Hamburg symphonies (groundbreaking works that are still not fully appreciated or well known) than anything he wrote in his earlier years for the flute-playing King Frederick the Great. But then, Frederick, while a pretty good flute player, could never have kept up with the almost manic technical demands of this concerto. I was absolutely amazed at Pahud’s technique, particularly his rapid staccato playing, which he kept under perfect control, articulating cleanly and producing a good music flow while still exploding the notes at an incredible speed.

Pahud’s tone is not a sensuous one, like those of Claude Monteux or James Galway, but rather a lean, bright sound, but his high range has its own unique prettiness about it. More importantly, judging from the liner notes, Pahud is deeply committed to playing out-of-center flute repertoire and he, like myself, sees the connections between this music and that of modern scores.

Happily, his accompanying conductor is Trevor Pinnock, one of the few no-nonsense HIP conductors of our time. Pinnock’s only real failing is that he sees no room for even occasional and subtle modifications of the tempo; for him, every piece and every movement he conducts is as rigid in tempo as a metronome. On the other hand, his phrasing is extraordinarily musical, and he manages to get the Kammerakademie Potsdam strings to play in straight tone (which I normally abhor) with a lovelier tone and sweeter timbre than most other HIP orchestras, so in this case the accompaniment does not grate too much on the ear. Only in the “Largo” movement of the Concerto in G did I yearn for a lovelier sound with a bit of vibrato. Be grateful for small favors!

In such passages as the one between the 8 and 9-minute mark in the first movement of the Concerto in G, Pahud evidently indulges in circular breathing, because his line is unbroken over that span while emitting a long string of notes. As already mentioned, the anemic string tone annoys a bit in the “Largo,” but once Pahud enters—even though he himself uses only a very light vibrato on some sustained notes and none on shorter ones—the ear gratefully receives his splendid sound. Not to put too fine a point on it, but while Pinnock’s musical treatment is good, Pahud’s is beter than good. It is artistic. He employs ever-so-slight gradations of volume within the musical line to emphasize the music’s shape. Were he more of a colorist on his instrument, the effect would be perfect. Harmonically, this concerto isn’t nearly as daring as the first, but at least in the way Pinnock treats it, it has a similar rhythmic thrust and drive. The last movement of this concerto contains some particularly odd, jagged lines for the solo flute, which Pahud again dispatches with consummate ease.

The opening movement of the Concerto in D minor has an odd meter, almost an 8-to-the-bar, yet syncopated rather than straight. The strong rhythmic undercuttent abates somewhat for the flute’s entrance, yet comes back now and then to emphasize the rhythm on certain beats and phrases. By the end of the the flute’s first solo we are in F major, moving around harmonically in a most audacious manner, only getting back to D minor around the 5:30 mark (but not staying there for long). Small wonder that Mozart commented that C.P.E. Bach was ”the father, and we are all children.”

In terms of form, however, this concerto is the closest to conventional Classical-era construction. This doesn’t mean it is easy to absorb or pick up on, only that it is the least radical of the three. Indeed, the flute solo in the “Un poco andante” is probably the closest thing to songfulness you will find on this record, a truly Mozartian melody that remains in the memory. Yet this doesn’t preclude Bach’s dramatic use of sharp, stabbing string chords to emphasize a dramatic shift of mood, after which he returns to the lovely melody—yet once again shifting the mood with subtle changes in orchestration and harmony. I should mention that all of the cadenzas played by Pahud on this recording were written by the composer himself.

Well, perhaps I spoke too soon about how this concerto was more conventional than the others, because the last movement explodes like a musical tsunami, once again throwing caution to the winds as the strings and solo flute skitter in and around the home key of D minor as if trying to hang on to anything as an anchor to keep them grounded. It is a perfect musical storm, and both Pinnock and Pahud are hanging on for dear life as they propel themselves towards the finish line. How on earth Bach dreamed up such intricate, almost violent music for the flute, of all instruments, boggles the mind. This is the kind of score that one could perhaps imagine a keyboard instrument playing, but certainly not a wind instrument! The best description I can muster of this last movement is “feverish,” and even that is inadequate.

This is a simply stupendous recording, one that I cannot imagine being bettered, at least not in the solo flute performances. As an overall listening experience, I would rate it one of the best C.P.E. Bach recordings ever made.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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