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Pahud and Le Sage at the Phillips

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

As previewed last week, flutist Emmanuel Pahud is in town, playing concerts with the National Symphony Orchestra this week. A small audience gathered on Wednesday night to hear a recital by Pahud and his frequent pianist collaborator, Eric Le Sage, in the intimate Music Room at the Phillips Collection. Pahud has made fine recordings of the repertoire most closely associated with the flute, the monuments of the Baroque and Classical periods. Some of his best work, however, has been in the dirty, chromatic world of the late Romantic and early modern, music that suits his large-toned approach and broad palette of color. How appropriate then that he presented a program of these pieces, drawn from two of his recent CDs, under the Music Room's current hanging of Daumier (The Uprising, The Strong Man), Cézanne, Courbet, and one of my particular favorites, Delacroix's diabolical portrait of Niccolò Paganini (shown at right).

Emmanuel Pahud:

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Reinecke, Undine Sonata, with Y. Bronfman

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Widor, Franck, Strauss, with E. Le Sage
The program opened with the "Undine" sonata (op. 167) by Carl Reinecke (1824-1910), which Pahud has recently recorded with Yefim Bronfman. The story, a favorite of the Romantic period, is drawn from the novel Undine (also available in English translation) by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué (Berlin, 1811). The water spirit Undine, the daughter of the King of the Sea, longs to gain an immortal soul, only possible if she is united in love with a mortal man. She leaves the water and is raised by a fisherman and his wife, a happy time depicted in the sonata's first movement (Allegro), complete with a second theme punctuated by folksy Scotch snap rhythms. The second movement (an outstanding Intermezzo marked Allegro vivace) corresponds to Undine's courtship and marriage to a knight named Huldbrand, featuring Pahud's quicksilvery tone and impeccable fingering.

The third movement (Andante tranquillo) is a gorgeous piece of late Romantic filth, as Huldbrand swears love and fealty to the tempestuous Undine. In an ultrafast outburst near the end of the movement, played with astounding ferocity by Pahud and Le Sage, Undine's uncle threatens Huldbrand not to betray Undine. To be sure, as no union between spirit and human ever ends happily, Huldbrand banishes Undine back to the sea and marries his treacherous former fiancée Berthalda, who has managed to insert herself into their home. The daring finale, marked Allegro molto agitato, relates how the water spirits have their revenge, as Undine curses Huldbrand with a deadly kiss, swearing that if he falls asleep he will forget to breathe and die. Ondine's Curse is a name sometimes given to a rare form of sleep apnea, in which involuntary respiration ceases, causing suffocation, usually while asleep.

The Reinecke received a subtle and tonally varied performance, and it is a lesser-known piece worthy of repeated listening. Its serious tone was contrasted by the whimsical, very French flute suite, op. 34, by Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937). Pahud and Le Sage gave the most shape and interest to the mercurial scherzo and its lilting trio, as well as the luscious, slow Romance. The Finale movement showed off Pahud's devilish runs and some fine ultrahigh notes. The most technically challenging piece on the program was last, Richard Strauss's E-flat major sonata, op. 18, rendered with clarity and strident intensity from both players, in spite of a page-turning mishap in the striking second movement, Improvisation.

Happily, pianist Eric Le Sage seems not to have received the memo that the flute is a retiring instrument, around which pianists should always tiptoe. He gave a fully scaled pianistic canvas for Pahud's soaring, fluttering flute to splatter with broad washes of sound. Sadly, the Franck flute sonata, adapted from his ravishing violin sonata in A major, also recorded by Pahud and Le Sage in 2004 and listed on provisional versions of this recital program, was not included. This may have had something to do with the arrival of the musicians only somewhat earlier in the day, without Pahud's suitcase. That he played in jeans and sneakers did nothing to detract from the pleasure of a remarkable evening and, in fact, heightened the sensation of a private Musikabend.

The next concert at La Maison Française features violinist Nicholas Dautricourt (November 19, 7:30 pm), and the next concert at the Phillips Collection is a recital by Lucille Chang (November 11, 4 pm). Both are free.

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