The flute as an instrument has a long and varied history. From the earliest examples of hollow bones with holes bored into them to today’s western traverse flute, it has always captivated listeners.

The versatility of the instrument is one of its biggest attractions, widely accepted as both an orchestral and a solo instrument, the repertoire for each being wide and varied. Within the orchestra, flute melodies are always heard because of its timbre and register.

Today the flute is one of the most popular instruments taught in schools, mainly thanks to the people upholding the tradition of beautiful tone and recognisable melodies.

We have chosen six such flautists here, along with an album that exemplifies their style.

Sharon Bezaly (born 1972)

Having made her solo debut at 13 with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic, there is little doubt that Bezaly was a child prodigy. She later went on to be named one of the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists, before embarking on an immensely successful solo career.

Twenty concertos have been dedicated to her by composers including Kalevi Aho and Sofia Gubaidulina. Solo and chamber works have been written for her by the likes of Sally Beamish, Anders Hillborg and José Serebrier. As well as performing works from the core classical repertoire, she is also renowned for bringing lesser-known concertos to life, including those of Schnittke, Doráti and Kletzki.

Her control of circular breathing enables her to play with a continuous sound, a particularly difficult skill to master.

Recommended recording:

Masterworks for flute and piano
Sharon Bezaly (flute) & Ronald Brautigam (piano)

Emmanuel Pahud (born 1970)

At 22, Pahud was the youngest player to join the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, in the position of principal flute. He left the orchestra in 2000 in order to tour worldwide and pursue teaching, but returned in 2002, under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle.Thanks to the momentum of his early career, Pahud’s workload increased immensely from 50 concerts a year to around 160: 90 solo or chamber recitals and 75 orchestral concerts.

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Pahud’s rock-steady technical ability has allowed him to develop a style over the years that is adaptable to whatever he is playing. He often describes how he uses the old traditions to inform current works.

His tireless approach to performing and raising the profile of the instrument cements his place as one of the greatest flautists.

Recommended recording:

Emmanuel Pahud (flute), Münchner Rundfunkorchester, Ivan Repušić
Warner Classics 9029539244

Read our review in full here.

Katherine Bryan (born 1982)

At the age of just 21, Katherine Bryan was appointed to the position of principal flute in the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, where she still performs today. Alongside playing as an orchestral and solo flautist, she is also a teacher at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Her beautiful, rich tone and emotional interpretation of the music make her recordings a pleasure to listen to, and her technical agility is impressive.

In her solo career, she has been accompanied by high-profile orchestras such as BBC Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic and English Baroque Ensemble.

Recommended recording:

Silver Voice: Opera Arias played by Flute and Orchestra
Katherine Bryan (flute), Orchestra of Opera North, Bramwell Tovey
Chandos CHSA5211

Jean-Pierre Rampal (1922-2000)

In his early life, Rampal had no intention of studying music, and trained as a doctor until the outbreak of World War Two forced him to flee to Paris, where he joined the conservatoire in order to hide from German authorities. During his career, Rampal played with the Orchestra of the Paris Opera, founded the French Wind Quartet and organised the Paris Baroque Ensemble.

His tone was exceptionally clear, as he eschewed vibrato in favour of the radiance and focus of a pure sound. His mastery of technique allowed him to develop his own sound and gave him the freedom to express the music in his own way.

Recommended recording:

Bach: Flute Partita & Sonatas
Jean-Pierre Rampal (flute), Trevor Pinnock (harpsichord), Roland Pidoux (cello)
Sony G010000911770S

Jeanne Baxtresser (born 1947)

During her career, Baxtresser held principal positions in three major US orchestras: Montreal Symphony, Toronto Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. This last appointment Baxtresser described as the ‘dream beyond my dreams’. Baxtresser is also renowned as a highly successful educator; working as a University Professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Her teaching has produced principal flautists in many major orchestras around the world.

Recommended recording:

Jeanne Baxtresser plays Taktakishvili, Martin, Gieseking, Gaubert, Amirov and Debussy
Jeanne Baxtresser, Pedja Muzijevic, Sarah Bullen, Alan Stepansky
Cala CACD0512

James Galway (born 1939)

James Galway is widely regarded as one of the leading flautists of today. Among many others, his career has included playing with London’s major orchestras, and as solo flautist with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

Galway’s popularity stems mostly from his undeniable talent, his clarity of sound, faultless intonation and breath-taking technique, which led to him inspiring many. His public image as ‘The Man With the Golden Flute’ also grabbed people’s attention and imagination.

Galway has also performed for royalty and presidents, achieved many awards including a knighthood in 2001. Now, he devotes much of his time to teaching and education and, with the help of his wife Jeanne, set up the Galway Flute Academy.

With 98 recordings to his name, Galway has ventured into all genres in his career, extensively performing classical masterworks, film soundtracks and pop songs.

Recommended recording:

The Essential James Galway
James Galway (flute)
RCA 88843097832