Yesterday evening’s Prom concert brought not one but two flute concertos, performed by Swiss virtuoso Emmanuel Pahud, together with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, again under Thierry Fischer’s direction. The two pieces are nearly five and three years old respectively, the first from Marc-André Dalbavie, who turned 50 earlier this year, the second (heard here in its UK première) from Elliott Carter, who will be a staggering 103 years old in December. Despite first appearances, there are commonalities between the two works. Both eschew the contemporary practice of opting for descriptive names; the bald title Flute Concerto has connotations of its own, of course, but nonetheless suggests that deeply programmatic content is not the order of the day. To that end, both also place greatest importance on the surface of the music, inviting the listener first and foremost to place their focus on its undulations. But there the similarities end.
Dalbavie seems intent on aiming the flute on a trajectory that seeks to reincarnate the Flight of the Bumblebee. The orchestra are given a rather muted thud as their signature, which they use frequently to punctuate the flute’s seemingly never-ending sequences of scales and arpeggios. The brass seem to be charged with a certain authority, as it’s only they who prove able to change the work’s direction. Beyond that, we’re in desperately simplistic musical territory, Dalbavie’s overt ternary form structure being just one example of how crudely basic the piece is. There are positive aspects, insofar as the relationship between the flute and orchestra is sensitively handled, and the brief shadings of Honegger-esque harmony early on are nice. But the work’s overwhelming handicap is the sharp contrast between its apparent aspirations and the crudely ineffectual results.
Time and time again, there’s the intimation that the music really wants to sing; the flute, not surprisingly, is the first to suggest this, and the strings on several occasions—some spontaneous, others in response to the flute—make moves in that direction. But each and every time, barely after a few notes have been uttered, the nascent melody is quashed and everything twirls off somewhere else. This is even the case in the lengthy slow episode at the work’s centre; in what is perhaps the most vacillating bit of solo writing the flute has ever known, the instrument, uncertain of how to proceed, resigns itself to repeating a single note. Rendered totally unable to fly, the flute ends up skittering around like a moth in an unpredictable wind, ultimately reduced to a demonstration of mere velocity and yet more spiralling scales and arpeggios that speak more of showing off than of virtuosity. His concerto is little more than a vacuous compositional exercise, the most cringe-making moment being when Dalbavie attempts a pastiche of impressionism, replete with octatonic scales: ghastly.
Elliott Carter, on the other hand, doesn’t just afford his flute the opportunity to sing, he allows it to do so for nearly 13 minutes. The pointillistic opening establishes what will turn out to be a gentle, occasional counterpoint to the flute’s lyricism; now and again, they intrude on the solo line, the pointillism shifting into blunt but penetrating accents. The texture bristles with the far-off presence of percussion (woodblocks at first, rototoms later), and through the first half of the piece, the orchestra is allowed to project significantly but never seems terribly robust; an attempted coup around six minutes in is like a fanfare reduced to fragments. They lumber around, moving forward in shuffles, and on the very rare occasions when they wrestle attention away from the flute, their gruff material fizzles quickly.
Carter seems content to leave ambiguous whether this kind of antagonism is malevolent or simply playful; either way, it makes little impact on the flute, apparently immune to all and any inroads from the orchestra, no matter how agitated they get. In fact, as the work unfolds, the quizzical nature between the one and the many takes on an ecstatic quality, the flute continuing its endless melody in a quasi-mystical manner, ever quieter and more tranquil. A bit like swearing at a monk, the rudeness proves itself impotent, and the relationship evolves into something rather uncanny. The simultaneous sense (particularly in the strings) of distance being kept from the flute while yearning to be near to it smacks of a kind of reverence, as though the soloist’s manner had struck awe in those around. Carter’s concerto is a shockingly powerful musical statement, in which a solo line demonstrates more power than an orchestra precisely by abnegating all the superficial trappings of the ‘virtuoso’. A beautiful and rather moving piece, it shows Carter to be as bold and impressively thought-provoking as ever. Dalbavie should thank his lucky stars that his effort came before Carter’s in the concert.