Although scheduled to start at 19:30, this concert did not actually begin until 20:40 due to delayed flights from Melbourne – such can be the vagaries of musical life in Australia.  Flautist Emmanuel Pahud needs little introduction, and has toured Australia several times in the last thirty years. On this occasion, he was accompanied by the Australian Chamber Orchestra under its regular director, Richard Tognetti. The ACO is generally celebrated as Australia’s finest small orchestra, but is sometimes admonished for taking various forms of chamber music – quintets, quartets, trios, sonatas of all kinds – and turning them into works for, well, small string orchestra.

Emmanuel Pahud © Josef Fischnaller
Emmanuel Pahud
© Josef Fischnaller

On this occasion, the works chosen worked well in this form, with 17 musicians as well as Pahud involved. Another thing for which the ACO is known is interesting repertoire choices and unusual combinations of works, but on this occasion, the works chosen were all rather predictable as flute vehicles. There was a somewhat disparate chronological aspect, starting with CPE and JS Bach, then vaulting 150 years forward for Ravel, Debussy and Franck. There was a reference in the printed program to a “Franco-Germanic lineage”, but if this were biology, creationists would have a field day.

This was Pahud’s concert. Beginning with the solo Flute sonata in A minor by CPE Bach, he stepped up to the front, lifted his flute and started off in a straightforward no-nonsense way, which instantly entranced with effortless, beguiling sound, beautiful legato and acute expressivity. The first movement was timeless and almost drifting but always under musicianly control, followed by the jaunty intricacy of the second movement Allegro and the nimble but haunting last movement. Bach père’s Ricercar a 6 from Das musikalische Opfer, another firm flute favourite associated, like the previous work, with Frederick the Great, is to some ears not heard at its best on modern instruments, but the co-ordination of the ACO is such that the fugal textures remained quite transparent despite the large number of players.

In the succeeding String Quartet in F major by Ravel, we have four parts distributed amongst some 17 players.  The Très doux opening movement includes that typical French fin de siècle languorous, almost decaying yet passionate effect; its sweetness was undeniably evident but not cloying. It was contrasted nicely with the succeeding energetic pizzicato passage; I am grateful to a colleague for reminding me that some of the unusual tonalities derive from Ravel’s exposure to Indonesian gamelan music at the Exposition Universelle, Paris in 1889 and, of course, this is an idiom with which the ACO is well conversant. More languor in the third movement but also more pizzicato kept up the energy levels, with a nice return by the cello leading to the final ferocious and thrilling attack.

After the interval, the perhaps inevitable Syrinx by Debussy also provided a nod to the gamelan, and allowed Pahud another solo opportunity. All his virtues were on display here – a sensuousness fully deserving the term seductive, the entirely secure low notes, immaculate legato and exploration of a wide range of textures and colours in such a short work.

The final offering of the evening was Franck’s Sonata in A major, again arranged for the ACO’s particular configuration – a work that is somehow more familiar than one thinks it is going to be. The arrangement worked very well here, as highlighted by, for instance, the flute’s velvety return to the urgent strings. Also noticeable was the communicative rapport between Pahud and his ACO colleagues, responding to the widely varying moods of the work. This was romantic music at its impassioned best.

While the audience (which seemed to comprise every flute player in Perth) was desperate for an encore, Pahud and the orchestra beat an understandable retreat, given it was by then over ninety minutes later than the scheduled finishing time.