Amy Harman, bassoon, Adam Walker, flute, James Baillieu, piano
I was looking forward to this concert with mixed feelings. Half the concert was to be not chamber music but recital: flute, or flute and piano, or bassoon and piano, rather than trios. And the combination of flute, bassoon and piano is not one made in heaven the way the string quartet is. Furthermore the music was, inevitably given the instruments, not the greatest: especially 15 year old Beethoven and Carl Maria von Weber. Against all that was the fact that Amy Harman, on bassoon, gave a very successful coffee concert with us in 2016, although that was with different players.
They started with the early Beethoven trio in G major. The first movement was competent, as a composition, but repetitive. I groaned inwardly when I saw them turn back to do a repeat. The slow movement was simple but lovely and the final movement full of invention, but I don’t think the whole piece would have been played if it hadn’t been by Beethoven. It was interesting to see that he had to work at being a genius! They played it with all the expression that the music permitted: graceful runs, tender melodies, they could not have done more.
Every thing changed when Adam Walker came forward to play Debussy’s Syrinx. The music is sublime. It’s simple, full of longing and passion. It’s a composition that could only be played on the flute; it’s reason enough to learn the instrument. Adam Walker’s playing was perfect; he seemed able to let notes hang in the air, he brought out warm tones in the lower register you rarely hear from a flute.
The Poulenc flute sonata that followed was equally successful. The music explores what the flute does best, and does it in a particular French way. The opening allegro was lyrical, the slow movement was rich and passionate, and the presto was full of bouncy energy with a particularly Poulenc flightiness. It was wonderfully played throughout, not least by James Baillieu at the piano. He can be the most discreet of accompanists and the most dramatic of soloists when the music calls for it.
Amy Harman introduced the Dutilleux Sarabande et Cortège by saying that it was a piece designed to test the player, and the bassoon, to their limits; and it did. She makes that bassoon sing, and there was plenty of lyricism in the music to allow her to do that. And when it comes to acrobatics and jokiness she can do that too. It’s a tremendous piece.
Finally, Weber’s G minor trio. It’s a work full of lively invention, with a lovely tender slow movement. The writing is particularly good; Weber really did know how to write for a trio. The players held nothing back but in the end I was left feeling it hadn’t amounted to much.
So had my premonitions been shown it be groundless? Wind players do struggle to find chamber works to play. But on this occasion they found enough to bring it off. And the excellence of the playing made up for those pieces that were less than inspired.