Flautists take swift action for belated French pianist

By Anne Lovering Rounds

On the night of Valentine’s Day, the director of University of Chicago Presents had it in her power to ruin every single date in Mandel Hall. At 8:10 p.m., she walked onstage to announce that Hélène Grimaud, billed as the “fiery” pianist who would accompany flautist Emmanuel Pahud in the works of Mozart, Schumann, and Brahms, had only then arrived at O’Hare and was waiting for her luggage.

But she did not. After the announcement, Emmanuel Pahud walked onto the stage and gave the audience what could be described in one of four ways as a: (a) solo recital; (b) comedy concert; (c) quintessential chamber music experience; or (d) the valentine of a lifetime. Actually, it turned out to be choice (e): all of the above.

“So, I received this stack of music,” Pahud said as he approached his stand. (Pause; laughter.) “Let’s have a look at it.” Really, this man could have a second career as a comedian. The timing between his lines was just right, but it probably helps to work with phrasing. “What would you like to hear? Baroque? [applause] Romantic? [more applause] Yes, you’re romantic people out there,” he said, and he picked up his flute and started the evening with two pieces by Pierre-Octave Farroud. Elusive and accent-filled, they could have been deemed Debussy preludes. I doubt many people had ever heard these pieces before, and I doubt much of the audience will ever hear them again. But those two little pieces opened one of the most intimate and amazing concerts I have ever heard.

Pahud’s fingers, like a pianist’s, were graceful and close to the keys, and he made an image that was all glinting light and angles–from the flute, as it shone in the light, to his body, and both of them to the stage itself. His phrasing was concise: no sloppy rubatos, no thoughtless pauses, no unintended rhythmic ambiguity. And the tone he coaxed out of the instrument was rich but at the same time crisp, sharp when it needed to be, but blurry, too, like a piano with the sustain pedal down. By the end of the Farroud, I bet every valentine-less woman in the audience thought Pahud was playing just for her.

“Let’s play some crazy composers,” said Pahud, when he had taken his first bow of many the evening would hold. In the Telemann fantasia and the by-request Bach partita that followed, he proved himself just as carefully innovative with Baroque music as he had with Farroud. Pianist Murray Perahia, whose “Goldberg Variations” are now so famous, has said that part of Bach’s greatness is that he loses nothing in the transcription; in Pahud’s rendition of the A-minor partita, the flute became a kind of means of transcription itself. For in Pahud’s Bach was the sound of a cello, a piano, a voice, all at once, but a flute just the same. The notes of the Allemande and Courante spilled out, mediated by the performer and his instrument, but neither overdetermined nor spoiled by his highly romantic interpretation. As Pahud caressed the final note of the Sarabande, nobody seemed to breathe. In the right hands, Bach and Telemann can be crazy. And they can be every bit as moving as any French composer, every bit as consciously emotional.

After a jump back to the 20th century with a satiric, Bach-inspired piece by an oboist colleague, and Varese’s challenging (and slightly more serious) “Density of Platinum,” both of which he performed with wit and integrity, Pahud ended his solo recital with two very different pieces: Debussy’s “Syrinx,” and an etude in G major by Joachim Anderson, the founder of the Berlin Philharmonic. Although Pahud played the etude with the virtuostic energy and joy it required, it was an afterthought. What was really memorable was the final note of the Debussy, which rang on ceaselessly. Pahud kept the flute at his lips long after the sound had faded, and, as after the Sarabande, nobody made a sound. Pahud might have been crying. If so, the tears didn’t seem affected.

Then enter Mathieu Dufour, principal flautist of the Chicago Symphony, and one of Dufour’s students, called down on short notice from his seat in the balcony to turn pages. His comment: “I never imagined this in my wildest dreams.” He did get his own applause; does the music concentration need a page-turning variant?

Together, Defour and Pahud played five aria arrangements, two from the Magic Flute and three from Marriage of Figaro. Perhaps the “Queen of the Night” aria was less successful as a double-flute transcription than the others, but no matter, these two musicians, so clearly enjoying themselves, brought to Mozart the seemingly simple spontaneity that is one of the most difficult things to achieve in his music. Whether they were or not, Dufour and Pahud looked like two relaxed sight readers–two friends who just happened to get together to play the flute.

The performances didn’t sound like sightreading, though. Their crescendos and cutoffs were perfect together; neither part drowned out the other, and in these lesser-known two-part arrangements, famous melodies lost all traces of cliché. If a Bach-like counterpoint was wonderfully audible, so was sweet, Mozartean harmony. Completely in the spirit of chamber music, Pahud would say after each aria (gesturing the page turner back), “Let’s play some more.” After the final he embraced Dufour onstage. “You are very lucky in this town to have Mathieu,” he said. He is right.

After the intermission, Hélène Grimaud made her entrance. With a first “half” of an hour and 20 minutes, I was afraid the two flautists might have upstaged her, but I needn’t have worried. Grimaud lived up to her epithet on the poster. She and Pahud opened with the first movement of Schumann’s A-minor sonata, and Grimaud was all upper body strength, with smooth arpeggios and fat chords that exploded from the piano. Her strength hardly lessened in the subsequent Brahms E-flat major sonata. “Play more into the key bed,” my teacher always tells me, and Grimaud did exactly that. She reveled in the low bass notes and brought Brahms’s chords and thick voice-leadings the meatiness they deserve. None of the works the duo played is to be taken lightly: after the Brahms, they returned to play Poulenc’s Sonata for flute and piano, and, finally, the last two movements of the Schumann. “We couldn’t leave Schumann unfinished,” Grimaud said. Her bold touch and her choice to open the piano’s lid might have been out of place in the formerly-scheduled Mozart sonata, which was cut from the program, but Grimaud’s apparent passion was appropriate to all she and Pahud played.

Eventually, the moment had to come for this Valentine’s Day marathon to end. In a place and time that makes me want to put down the newspaper, turn off the radio, and spend the rest of my life (à la Glenn Gould) alone in a remote province of northern Canada, it felt unbelievably good to stand and applaud with the rest of Mandel Hall. We stood clapping for a flautist who could improvise a program in a day, for another flautist who gladly left his CSO gig to play it with him, and for a woman who could come straight out of the cultural vacuum of O’Hare International Airport and play Schumann and Brahms. Putting our hands together in that strange, simple sound of happiness, we stood there together, on a day that suddenly didn’t seem like such a commercial hoax, overwhelmed by the music those three had come together to make.