REVIEW: Coffee Concert: Amy Harman (bassoon), Adam Walker (flute), James Bailleu (piano)

Amy Harman - Adam Walker - James Baillieu
Amy Harman - Adam Walker - James Baillieu

Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, Sussex University, Sunday 28 January 2018 (11am).

Beethoven, Trio in G major WoO37 (c1786); Debussy, Syrinx for solo Flute(1913); Poulenc, Flute Sonata (1957); Dutilleux, Sarabande et Cortege or bassoon and piano (1942); Weber, Trio in G minor Op63 for Flute, Cello and Piano (1819) arr for flute, bassoon and piano.

The violin is the staple caffeine of the Coffee Concerts, either in quartet, quintet or with a piano, with wind instruments providing abstinent ensemble offerings on a few intervening months. Withdrawal symptoms among the core audience might have been the fear of the Coffee Concert programmers when risking changing the beverage available.

But delicious Dutch quintet Calefax memorably broke the dam with their American In Paris debut appearance to increase confidence in such occasional enterprise. The high of stimulating wind sound became legal. Later, since Amy Harman’s wind and piano trio visit which began the series’ temporary exile from The Corn Exchange in November 2016, the nine concerts at The Attenborough Centre have included Sean Shibe’s solo guitar.

Harman with oboist Olivier Stankievicz and pianist Tom Poster then played a programme of five-sixths French music. This time Harman swapped flute for oboe in her line-up and changed pianists for an offering French and German in 60-40 proportion. And it was France, and the flute, that brought another rare moment when a solo instrument holds the Coffee Concert stage.

It was, of course, Syrinx, the mesmeric solo Debussy wrote to be played offstage during the play Psyche, to simulate Pan’s piping in solace after another frustrated amorous pursuit of the nymph Syrinx. Except this time, fleeing him and having transformed herself into a river reed to escape his notice, she finds herself the material for the pipes he has hewn from the available vegetation. (Why did this kind of fate only befall Greeks?)

In concert, the flautist is in improvisory mode, and therefore in ample interpretational freedom to invoke both Pan’s melancholy and Psyche’s deathsong. And naturally, he operates in the new sound world and instrumental personality Debussy created himself years earlier in composing Prelude de L’Apres Midi D’Un Faune. I need say no more. It’s a flautist’s calling card of seduction. The interpretation and spell-casting is all up to them.

Thus, former LSO principal Adam Walker, in untucked-in white shirt and tight-cut street trousers, worked his magic in the brief time available, which he ended with a morendo as time-suspendingly utter as it was theatrically telling. The performance was an inevitably spellbinding special new moment in Coffee Concert history.

He then paired with pianist, the rising-star accompanist James Baillieu, in the three-movement Poulenc Sonata. It made a complete switch from the introverted lyricism of Syrinx to the ebullience, wistfulness and mischief of Francis Poulenc. The duo brought out large quantities of the entertaining multi-sided personality that Poulenc cannot suppress from his compositional pages. And Walker’s exciting but non-overt virtuosity laid the audience in the palm of his hand.

Harman is carving out a chamber career including being a long-term member of Ensemble 360. This alongside her orchestral one, previously principal of The Philharmonia, now of English National Opera, and the stand-up Aurora Orchestra who famously play from memory. She had her limelight turn in Henri Dutilleux’s two-movement exam test piece she announced, almost as her own circus ringmaster, as containing all the technical gauntlets a composer could throw down to a bassoonist in 1942.

Any lingering old-time preconceptions of the bassoon being music’s clown have been quietly extinguished by Harman’s musicality, tone and technical agility during in her material of these two Coffee Concert appearances and the rarity of hearing her instrument in this context gives us a privileged window in on a top bassoonist’s art and a close up on its sound and voice.

The 15-year-old Beethoven revealed himself in the morning’s opening Trio. Full of originality within the established contemporary European style, the self-prophetic flair if his forthcoming mastery of variation form, and – perilous for Bailleu to have to play straight out of the Green Room – much characteristically demanding piano writing, awkward to execute in Beethoven’s assertive, expressive and virtuoso rejection of easy cliché and perfunctory technique.

A posthumous discovery, this Trio was unpublished in his lifetime, hence no opus number. No doubt it was quite soon superceded in his own estimations and relegated to his bottom drawer. But the inclusion of this piece was revelatory to already hardened Beethoven fans, arriving like unseen documentary footage of his teenage years.

In the Weber Trio arrangement, Harman Adams and Baillieu revelled in the full-blooded romanticism these mere three instruments are capable of conveying. The morning was another insight into the world of unfamiliar wind music in all but the familiar Syrinx, but one was left regretting on these musicians’ behalf that Mozart – the purveyor of magical flute and bassoon orchestral and operatic dialogue – appears to have left them nothing to perform in the chamber.

Harman’s 2016 trio began the Coffee Concerts’ residency at The Attenborough Centre. This time the audience was 230. Not far short of a string quartet turn-out. The audience are beginning to like their vegetables.

Richard Amey

Next Coffee Concert: Sunday February 25 at 11am. Already popular here, the young Castalian Quartet – but with senior cellist Simon Rowland-Jones so they can bring Brahms’ Quintet No 1 in F Op88. Quartets first, though: Haydn Opus 76 No 5 in D, and Britten No 2 in C minor Op36 from 1945.