Playful, colourful, virtuosic

Principal flute Emmanuel Pahud on flute concertos by Ibert and Busoni

Principal flute Emmanuel Pahud
(Photo: Sebastian Hänel)

Few flute players possess the ability to play even the most difficult works with ease and elegance. Emmanuel Pahud, principal flute of the Berliner Philharmoniker, is one of them. And as such, he regularly appears as a soloist with the orchestra. This season, he plays Jacques Ibert’s flute concerto and Ferruccio Busoni’s Divertimento for flute and orchestra under the direction of Daniel Barenboim. In our interview, he tells us why Ibert’s concerto is so challenging, why Busoni’s composition is so worth listening to, and what it means to perform in the empty Philharmonie. The concert, which also features Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, will be broadcast live in the Digital Concert Hall.

Jacques Ibert wrote not only the concerto, but also some chamber music works for the flute. What drew him to the instrument?
Here I have to go back in history: the transverse flute was modernised by Theobald Böhm in the middle of the 19th century. In addition to the new acoustic design, it was the change from a wooden to a metal body and the key mechanism that made the instrument sound more powerful, more intonation-proof and more evenly playable. At the end of the 19th century, these innovations established a completely new way of playing the flute in France. The transverse flute was then a new, modern instrument. A whole generation of French composers, including Jacques Ibert, wanted to exploit the new possibilities of the flute.

His flute concerto is considered one of the most difficult works in the repertoire. What makes this piece so challenging?
The work was written for Marcel Moyse, the greatest flautist of that time, and was therefore also very virtuosically conceived. Ibert exhausts all the possibilities of the instrument in terms of range, dynamics and articulation; in addition, there are the rapid changes in pitch and timbre. It is a challenge to maintain lightness of tone and articulation, and to make sure that the instrument remains strong in the low register and does not scream in the high register. As a flautist, you also need a wide dynamic range to hold your own against the orchestra.

This brings us straight to the next question: What is the relationship between soloist and orchestra?
Ibert composed the concerto very rich in tonal colour. He uses many rhythms that come from jazz as well as dance and folk music. This creates so many beautiful, different moods that characterise the interplay. There is no confrontation between soloist and orchestra, but there are always dialogues between the solo voice and the various instruments of the orchestra.

Ibert’s concerto has accompanied you throughout your professional life. How has your view of it changed over the years?
I have performed the piece more than 200 times and I still can’t say it ever feels run-of-the-mill to play it. I still get nervous when I play the piece – in a positive sense. The different moods of the concerto, the incredibly expressive cantilenas are like a narrative. And with the experience of my 30-year career, which has been shaped by encounters and exchanges with conductors and other musicians, new aspects are constantly being added. As a result, the narrative becomes richer and richer...

The Divertimento for flute and orchestra by Ferruccio Busoni was first performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker under the direction of the composer in January 1921. One critic wrote afterwards that it was a weak piece. What would you say to that critic?
A divertimento is a small, short, playful piece. You can’t expect it to be profound. Busoni manages to build a bridge between the Classical and the Modern. The different sound worlds of his music make it a fantastic work. It forms a wonderful link between the Ibert concerto and the Symphonie fantastique by Berlioz, which Daniel Barenboim conducts afterwards. I always enjoy playing this mini flute concerto.

Although music of the 1920s, this work shows very strong influences from earlier epochs. What stylistic inspiration did Busoni take up?
His music contains centuries-old traditions of composing and at the same time looks to the future. In the Divertimento, for example, the stylistic influences of Mozart and Italian opera are noticeable in the accompanying figures, but Busoni is progressive in the melodic composition and harmonic progressions.

How does it influence you as a musician to perform in an empty Philharmonie?
It is of course a completely different situation whether we play music in front of 2400 people or make a recording. For recordings, we do not need to give so much dynamically, but we need to be more precise in our articulation. In addition, an empty hall influences the acoustics and this must also be considered for concerts without an audience. Thanks to the Digital Concert Hall, we can reach people at home. This makes us feel ultimately less lonely, but we all want to play in front of an audience in a full Philharmonie again soon!