The world of classical music in North East England is small, friendly and filled with talent, and there is a great deal of mutual affection between the region’s Royal Northern Sinfonia orchestra and its audience. That is why Hall Two at Sage Gateshead was packed to capacity with a wildly enthusiastic crowd of supporters to welcome the orchestra’s principal flautist Juliette Bausor as she returned to her home hall with pianist Alasdair Beatson after a tour of some of Europe’s most prestigious concert venues as part of the European Concert Hall Organisation’s ECHO Rising Stars series.

Juliette Bausor © Benjamin Ealovega
Juliette Bausor
© Benjamin Ealovega

As the programme unfolded, delightfully pleasing symmetries emerged between the two halves. That each half began with a Bach sonata was obvious, but there were more pairings – two Paris Conservatoire examination pieces, two Russians, two bird-song pieces; and each half ended with a glorious showstopper.

The Bach sonatas were both elegantly played, with a lovely soft legato tone from the flute and clean bell-like piano accompaniment. The opening movements of both sonatas had a nice pulse that brought clarity and shape to Bach’s long melodic lines. The second movement Allegro of BWV 1034 was effortlessly fluid and the closing Allegro of BWV 1035 was cheeky and flirtatious, and both had a sense of baroque stylishness in the articulation. The real treasure in these two sonatas though was the BWV 1035 third movement Siciliano which ached with soulful beauty enhanced by judicious rubato and a rich pianissimo on the repeats.

Messiaen’s Le Merle noir, written for the Paris Conservatoire, was the composer’s first birdsong pieces of many. Listening to the intensity that both musicians brought to the piece, I had the sense that Messiaen was not merely trying to imitate birdsong, rather that he was seeking to communicate with birds. Sofia Gubaidulina’s Klänge des Waldes (Sounds of the Forest) was more straightforwardly impressionistic and contained fascinating mixtures of texture – very low, soft staccato in the flute part juxtaposed with mechanical piano trills right at the top of the keyboard, before switching to high legato flute and very low piano. The final bars of the piece demanded impressive coordination from both musicians in their coordinated trills.

Klänge des Waldes was preceded by Gubaidulina’s wonderfully spirited Allegro Rustico, which in its wild energetic rhythms clearly drew on her Russian and Tatar background and her interest in folkmusic. Flute and piano bounced off each other with brilliant, sparkling runs; Alasdair Beatson drove the piece along with masses of energy, and the brightness of Juliette Bausor’s tone here gave the piece a biting edge of excitement.

The one piece that stood unpaired was a new one, commissioned for this tour from Charlie Piper. Kokopele was inspired by Native American rock art depicting a hunchbacked man dancing and playing a pipe, so we had strong, jerky rhythms, pentatonic scales and a hypnotic restlessness in which flute and piano melded into one sound, before giving way to long unbending flute notes and delicate flutterings.

Prokofiev’s Flute Sonata in D, Op 94 that closed the published programme forms one of the most substantial works in the flute and piano repertoire. The piece was full of Prokofiev’s signature melodies with quirky intervals and jolting rhythms. I had a sense that the audience particularly enjoyed the second movement; with its gypsy-jazz feel, you could easily see how Prokofiev was able to rework this sonata for the violin, but Juliette Bausor’s crisp articulation here made an equally good case for the flute version. The bluesy feel continued in the dark chromatic wanderings of the third movement, but the piano here gave a strong sense of the underlying harmony to anchor the waywardness of the flute part.

Introducing Dutilleux’s dazzling Sonatine, Juliette Bausor said that the piece was a particular favourite of hers, and it is clearly one that she enjoys playing and that suits her style. The high passages allowed her to show off her distinctively clear, silvery tone, pushing the flute to the top of its range but never sounded forced, or shrill. She galloped through a series of demanding runs and leaps in a ferocious manner, then switched to lovingly shaped long notes as the piece changed mood. Although written as a flute examination piece, the piano part is just as demanding, giving Alasdair Beatson scope to match Juliette Bausor’s dramatic colouring. There seemed to be minimal physical communication between the two musicians – they were clearly working on telepathy and great shared musicality as this was a sympathetic and tightly coordinated partnership.

After the excitement of the Prokofiev and very enthusiastic applause, Bausor and Beatson returned to give us Fauré’s Mourceau de concours as a graceful and soothing encore.