There have been some intriguing concerts this season in the Lunchtime Series but none more so than this one given by Adam Walker, one of the most eminent woodwind players of his generation and principal flautist of London Symphony Orchestra for the last ten years. His partner in this concert, the pianist Alasdair Beatson, was a player new to me but one, certainly in this music, for whom the description used ‘partner ‘ was indeed apt. Much of the music featured demanded something far beyond simple support for the flute.
The concert was devoted entirely to French music which, as Adam Walker pointed out, was hardly surprising since it is an instrument which has featured large in Gallic composition. In addition, in the development of the instrument in the last 150 years and in playing styles France has figured prominently. More to the point the programme was for me, and possibly for many in the audience, a voyage of discovery since not a note of the music had I heard before.
For the most part it proved a delightful and rewarding journey. To begin with it was quickly apparent that we were in the presence of two formidable players. I could see very quickly in the opening Suite for Flute and Piano by Widor why, in reviews of the LSO, critics often feel the need to make comment regarding the orchestra’s principal flautist. His playing in this concert revealed a huge dynamic range , a beguiling tone and an agility ,an almost gossamer touch (if that is the right word) which was astonishing . In addition, the pianist matched him moment for moment.
Which leaves the works to be commented upon. This too was revelatory. If Widor is remembered for anything, it is his Organ Symphony No.5 , or rather the last movement of same which features so often in wedding ceremonies. I once had to sit through the whole work and vowed not to let myself in for that experience ever again. Perhaps it is the 19c organ but the adjective flatulent came to mind. Nothing could have been further from the truth in regard this utterly charming and quite various work. It was delightfully tuneful, witty in places and coolly lyrical in the best French style, quite the work for the unseasonably spring -like weather outside.
It must have been this that put me in a mood to find Milhaud’s Sonatina for Flute and Piano equally enjoyable. Sometimes I find the supposed naughtiness and satire of Les Six rather wearing when heard in quantity but here the wit, the laughter and the drawing on music of the street was infectious, certainly when played like this. The performance also revealed a stratum of tenderness. And how both artists made the third movement fizz!
More surprises followed. We had Vocalise-etude by Messiaen which I would defy anyone in a blind listening session to have identified as by the composer. The piano part, here beautifully played, sounded just out of the Debussy songbook. But then one of the delightful features of this composer was his ability to find inspiration in a multitude of things, most famously, of course, in bird song, hence the next piece Le Merle Noir (The Blackbird). I thought this wonderfully various and atmospheric and again given a performance outstanding in its virtuosity. The playing of the coda was simply extraordinary.
Lastly, we came to what I thought might be the tough nut of the programme, hoping against hope that it would be as revelatory as what had preceded it. My problem here I feared would be an opinion formed over the years of listening to music in the two centuries that I have lived in, an era in which much great music has been composed, music that has successfully established itself with concert and opera goers . Contrastingly , Pierre Boulez, the composer rather than the conductor, exemplified much that I disliked about the 20c music scene. He was undoubtedly a man of almost frightening intellect who, as people of that sort sometimes do in all forms of art, decided there could only be one answer to a question, his, and in this case that the rule book must be totally discarded , that anything that might be popular was the wrong path and that like minded artists should retire to a laboratory to compose the music of the future, recognising that that would entail largely cutting loose from the concert and operatic public. Once apparently in a fit of rage he declared that he would be quite happy if all opera houses were razed to the ground. He at times also cut himself off from other composers who would have described themselves as broadly modernist, for instance Stravinsky and his own teacher , Messiaen no less , because he found their latest work a betrayal of the principles of modernism.
Yet he was a paradox. In interview he came across as having great wit and he could apparently be both kind and thoughtful. My sole contact musically with him had prior to this concert had been snippets of his work broadcast, works which were constantly being re-written. Generally these made little more than a glacial impression. However, as a conductor I heard him in the concert hall and, surprisingly one might have thought, in the opera house. Here he made a very considerable impression. His interpretations had a stunning clarity ,though even here precision sometimes loomed greater than any joy there might have been in the score.
So the performance of Sonatine for flute and piano ,an early work from the 1940’s, was the first work by him which I had heard in the flesh. I managed to make the rehearsal as well as the concert performance so I heard Boulez X2. Does that make a difference? Well perhaps but it hardly forms a firm base for critical comment. There were passages which suggested perhaps that the composer had yet to cut loose completely from some of the more engaging features of French music. Late in the work there was a passage for piano which sounded wonderful, like listening to running water. There were some notably dramatic moments (as the piano pounded away one wondered who would give in first, the instrument or pianist’s arms) and the ending had a rather striking dismissal from the flute. Also, for some reason the piece required four music stands onto which went a pile of loose material, all of which provided opportunity for laughter and suggested that the flautist should have brought a library assistant with him.
However, even after a second hearing I fear in the main the musical material and its sound world made little real impact, despite the virtuosity of the performance. To my ear it was more an exercise than a compelling piece of music with personality. The fact that this is an early work ( and one should not make general judgments about a composer based on that), and given my very thin knowledge of his mature compositions, it is obvious I am not in a position to make any solidly based judgment about the composer. However, when I think of work composed around this time such as Vaughan Williams 5th Symphony, Britten’s Song cycle The Holy Sonnets of John Donne (written after the composer gave with Menuhin a concert in Belsen concentration camp)and a little earlier Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony, again what struck me was compared with the overall deep humanity of these very different composers just how largely cold was this musical world and I got to wondering how Boulez , a man who loomed so large in his time, will be viewed fifty years from now. Would his music be seen finally as mainstream or would it be regarded as at best an interesting cul de sac of musical history?
Of course, I and most of the audience at this concert will never know! However, if there is betting in the spirit world , my money I think will be on the second. Thinking it over after the concert I was reminded of the ending of Shelley’s great sonnet Ozymandias about the ephemeral nature of power and reputation. In it a traveller stumbles on a ruined statue in the desert, on whose pedestal he reads these words:
‘My name is Ozymandias king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing besides remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
After all that pondering, the last word must be to thank the performers for having produced a progamme so thought provoking and so wonderfully played. This is what concerts should be about and was given a deservedly mighty ovation . Do come again and perhaps bring more Boulez if there is anything suitable!