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Emmanuel Pahud Interview

Emmanuel Pahud - The showcase behind a début

The Berlin-based flautist Emmanuel Pahud arrived in Hong Kong on this very Wednesday night in preparation for his début concert in two days time with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra (HKPO), under the direction of Maestro Edo de Waart. Over the span of nearly two decades, from a soloist on the podium to the role as Principal Flautist of the infamous Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO), Emmanuel Pahud has left critics and audience alike craving for superlatives, dazzled with tasteful memories much like after a salving glass of Red Bordeaux. He finds time with critic Patrick Lam to discuss his exciting début with the HKPO.

The musician behind his flute

Pahud, now 38, returns to Hong Kong for his third visit, the first being with the BPO tour in 2000. The Swiss-French flautist has garnered a reputation internationally, and certainly a stellar track-record that is rare amongst his breed of fine musicians. To select one of his many achievements, Pahud was appointed as one of the youngest Principal Flautists of the Berlin Philharmonic at the age of 22, handpicked no less by Maestro Claudio Abbado himself. Where the flute lives, whether in recitals on the concert-stage or in the households via recordings, the magic of Pahud’s flute playing must have caught your eardrums soothing and your mind relaxed, very much like a beautiful Brahms intermezzi or a Chopin nocturne.

The experience of having grown up with the CDs of Emmanuel Pahud and to look face-to-face at this musical talent took some time to get used to, even though interviews are like the daily bread for any critic! Pahud entered backstage dressed in jeans, with a Columbia mountain-gear cyberpack, carrying a luggage of [wine] souvenirs. Here is the legendary Emmanuel Pahud that left large audiences packed in the Royal Albert Hall roaring at the end of the London Proms and where the Lucerne Festival honored him with the highest distinction of “Artiste Étoile” in 2006.

Where did it all begin?

Pahud fell for the flute's magic as a child, "We moved into a flat in Rome, and the neighbours upstairs played music regularly," he says. "Everybody played music, the parents were musicians, and the children were studying musical instruments. And then, one day, I heard this instrument – its sound so outstanding, so different from the rest, and lo and behold, this was my first acquaintance with the flute.” As a young child living in Italy, Pahud first heard the flute, and this set the course to a remarkable chapter of his life.

How was it like to perform with the Berlin Philharmonic?

“The dynamic range of the orchestra was phenomenal. The Berlin Phil works much more as equals, you know, and Maestro Simon Rattle sees himself as being part of the team. We like him very much, and he shares with us his opinions openly and it is a fluid exchange of ideas. The art of playing with the Berlin Phil is very different here, compared to other Orchestras [like the Münich Philharmonic Orchestra] where we work as equals with our individual voice.” Indeed, for those who have heard or worked with members of the Berlin Philharmonic, they all unanimously agreed that this is a very individualist and soloistic “large ensemble.”

What was the choice of starring the Nielsen Flute Concerto as his début with the HKPO?

In fact, Pahud admitted it was more of a decision from Maestro de Waart to feature this concerto in the programme. Coupled with the Carl Nielsen’s Maskarade Overture, it was a fine balance to feature two contrasting works written by the same composer – first, a traditional “Classical-style” overture to open the evening, and then with this flute concerto that was very much a biography of Nielsen’s life, sketching to life in music not only the portraits of musicians Nielsen met as a composer, but his impressions and love for Copenhagen, to an extend that it was like a musical travelogue of the fine landscapes of Eastern Europe.

For those who had the privilege to witness live Emmanuel Pahud’s performance of this Flute Concerto, his incredible capabilities on the flute itself gave him the freedom to draw any sounds and character nearly to the fine limits of the instrument. Particularly with this concerto, his performance gave a clear image of the scattered flautist Nielsen had in mind from the Copenhagen Wind Quintet, at the time when this concerto came to birth. “Nielsen has a unique trademark of optimistic modernism,” says Pahud, “a unique brand of forwardness that one could easily depict from his chamber works, for example, in his String Quintet.” To this end, Pahud’s playing was impeccable. From the crisp and lightly articulated passages to those beautifully luscious phrases, here was a musician that brought out vast expressiveness, sprightly tempos and radiant textures in music where notes printed on the music score immediately became like dancing heartbeats, living full with spirit.

Faced with competition from nearly every great flautist of the last century, Pahud made the Flute Concerto very much his own with warm tone, sparkling technique and a cogent interpretation on Friday evening’s performance. Together with the ever-alert Edo de Waart and the well-polished HKPO under his directorship, Emmanuel Pahud turned an extraordinary performance of this concerto, and it is indeed a warm welcome that RTHK will be broadcasting a repeat of this performance on 23/5/08, together with Pahud’s concert ending encore of Debussy’s Syrinx.

What other music are you venturing and what are some of your future recording plans?

Pahud's pace as a musical innovator and explorer is certainly cracking as his repertoire broadens like a sun across its horizons. If you think Emmanuel Pahud has only been tagged as a rising classical artist, his most recent Jazz recording from 2003, Into the Blue, is collaboration with jazz pianist Jacky Terrasson that certainly reflects his wide musical range. Other examples of his vast interests in innovative musical genres include these so-called “one-time projects” (as Pahud calls them); most recently in 2006, it included a collaboration project with the NHK Symphony Orchestra of a recorded original soundtrack for the NHK Taiga series Komyo ga Tsuji (Jp: 功名が辻).

Nineteenth-century composers were not particularly generous contributors to the flute’s solo repertory, although granted, many French composers wrote contest pieces (Fr. morceaux de concours) to be performed by students during competitive examinations at the Paris Conservatory (incidently, this was the very conservatory where Pahud graduated with the Premier Prix). Aside from these hidden gems, only a scarcity of Romantic solo pieces is available for the flute. German composers were particularly scarce in this aspect: Schubert wrote only one big work [a Theme and Variations for Flute and Piano); Beethoven did not even write one, and neither did Schumann, Brahms, Mendelssohn or Richard Strauss.

So, when asked what Pahud has in mind about recording projects, he gave a short glimpse of his upcoming project with Trevor Pinnock in the coming year, concertizing across the globe (including a stop in Asia) of the Flute Sonatas of Johann Sebastian Bach. Also, the flautist mentioned the many commissioned compositions from contemporary composers that he shall be taking part at their premières in the next little while, including new flute concerti by Matthias Pintscher, Michael Jarrell and Marc-André Dalbavie. It is only with great anticipation that we hope these compositions would surface on EMI, where Pahud is the only flautist in the world with a solo contract from a major record company.

Final Words

Emmanuel Pahud has been anointed as successor to Jean-Pierre Rampal, and equally, to Sir James Galway (in fact, as was Sir Galway, who also served as principal flute of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1969) as the reigning flute virtuoso. To the very least, the tone of Pahud’s "magic flute" is one that is bold and lyrical, capable to project any sounds and character above anything the Orchestra pitches at him. As one recalls from the Nielsen concerto, this was a work that showcased Pahud’s warmth and lyricial abilities, comical and light-hearted character, very much how this fine musician is in person. Hong Kong was fortunate to take part in this musical testimony together with Emmanuel Pahud, and it is with joyous anticipation that we await for Mr.Pahud’s return with Trevor Pinnock in the works of Bach in forthcoming year in 2009-2010.

Patrick P.L. Lam



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