A successful performance of the Sonata needs an acute sense of interaction between the players. All chamber music demands that, you might well argue, but Poulenc’s fine-spun tissues require an unusual intimacy. The flute’s melodic line throughout the first movement, for instance, is practically a stream of consciousness, as it reacts to the piano’s changes of key. The secret lies in the balance of the phrases, the way one leads on to another, the way any speed changes are organic.
Then there’s sheer beauty of sound. Poulenc took great care to make his music beautiful: the instrumental sound must match it. That’s affected by changing fashions, perhaps unfortunately. Rampal’s own 1969 recording with his fellow Frenchman Robert Veyron-Lacroix, on the Erato label, seems now to have a troubling vibrato, though his filmed performance of the slow movement with Poulenc himself ten years earlier (not available at present) is truly lovely.
Thirdly, it is not an easy work to play. The visceral dislike that the piece inspires in just a few musicians perhaps stems from their pre-emptive wince as yet another young flute player embarks upon that opening arpeggio.
The best recording of Poulenc's Flute Sonata
Sharon Bezaly (flute), Ronald Brautigam (piano)
BIS SACD 1729
The recording that works best, with beautiful sound, conversational fluency and technical brilliance is from the Israeli flautist Sharon Bezaly and Dutch pianist Ronald Brautigam, made for the BIS label in 2008.
Admittedly, Bezaly and Brautigam’s attention to detail is not always perfect – at one point, for instance, Brautigam smoothes one of Poulenc’s important semitones into a mere octave – and their slow movement is perhaps a little fast (though, paradoxically, still full of repose). Overall, however, this is pretty breathtaking stuff. The two players have a theatricality about them that Poulenc himself would have appreciated.
Three other great recordings
Adam Walker (flute)
Opus Arte OACD9012D
Poulenc was never concerned about being ‘modern’ – he affected a weary indifference to the 1950s critics who thought him an irrelevance. (Incidentally, how usefully his music demonstrates the difference between ‘modern’ and ‘original’). Unfortunately, even those who love his music can be lulled into inattention by the apparent familiarity of the material (see also ‘The best recording’, left), and Adam Walker and James Baillieu’s 2013 recording shows several such misreadings in the piano. That’s a pity, because they have a wonderful rapport, and right at the outset they show that Poulenc’s tempo marking Allegro malinconico (fast, melancholy) need not be an oxymoron, as some writers have suggested.
Philippa Davies (flute)
Hyperion CDA 672556 1998
These two musicians from the Nash Ensemble have a wonderful understanding of the relationship between Poulenc’s melody and harmony. Ian Brown is one of few pianists to take Poulenc at his word where pedalling is concerned, and Philippa Davies’s sound in the slow movement especially is ravishing. The CD, recorded in 2010, also presents Poulenc’s wind music and the violin and cello sonatas.
Guy Eshed (flute)
Nimbus NI 6121
The thoughtful duo of flautist Guy Eshed and pianist Tim Horton, who are both members of Music in the Round’s Ensemble 360, make some very interesting tempo decisions about Poulenc’s tenuto marks in the third movement. The playing is beautiful, but their slow movement slightly falls apart in the middle. With all of Poulenc’s music for piano and wind instruments featured on this 2010 disc, there is much else to enjoy here.
And one to avoid…
Wolfgang Schulz (flute)
Schulz was the principal flautist in the Vienna Philharmonic. His playing has a brisk efficiency that reminds us that the particular skills required for orchestral playing are not always helpful elsewhere. Worse, pianist Madoka Inui catastrophically misreads a clef in the slow movement, turning the suave perfect cadence that introduces the melancholy waltz into complete nonsense. You’d have thought someone, somewhere, might just have noticed.