‘I think we might have played this piece over 150 times…it is such a gift for this ensemble’, so said flautist Henry Roberts of the Pelléas Ensemble in relation to Claude Debussy’s seminal work, the Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp of 1915 which provided the backbone and undoubted highlight of this wonderful concert at the Acorn Centre in Inverurie. A ‘gift’ for the ensemble it may be, but one might go even further and suggest this very combination of flute, viola and harp wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Debussy’s late career focus on chamber music and unusual combinations of instruments at that. Since the composer’s autumnal musings we have been left with a legacy of pieces for this trio from such diverse names as Arnold Bax, Richard Rodney Bennett and the recently departed Harrison Birtwistle – all no doubt gifts for this hugely talented trio at some point in the future.
The warm acoustic of the Acorn Centre was a perfect match for the mellow sounds of the Pelléas Ensemble: the harp of Anne Denholm ringing in a resounding fashion throughout, matching the clarity and vivacity of Roberts’s flute playing and the melancholy lines of Luba Tunnicliffe’s resonant viola. There were moments where it felt like more players had ventured on stage to join the trio, such was the power of the sound on offer, no more so then in the daring arrangement of selections of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet suite which ended the concert – transfiguring the technicolour brilliance of this orchestral favourite to this understated trio shouldn’t have worked, but as the final notes of the piece disappeared into the rafters any doubts were firmly extinguished.
Despite a growing list of works written for this instrumental combination in the years since Debussy, there is still relatively little original material for the group, so arrangements of extant pieces often have to be included for contrast and diversity. Alongside the rollercoaster ride of the Prokofiev saw some beautiful arrangements by Tunnicliffe of songs by Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) and John Dowland, Henry Purcell’s Fantasia Upon One Note and Ethel Smyth’s Variations on Bonny Sweet Robin. The Clarke and Purcell were delivered with poise and style, but it was the imaginative transformation of Downland’s heavy melancholy that was most captivating, the combination of viola and harp colouring the early Baroque with contemporary sheen and highlighting why Dowland’s work has continued to fascinate composers ever since. Alongside the arrangements, the audience was also treated to Sally Beamish’s (1956 – ) dramatic and dark-hued meditation on an ancient Celtic lament, Between Earth and Sea and Debussy’s perennial solo flute favourite Syrinx, but it was the French composer’s more substantial work that stole the show. The first movement ‘Pastorale’ was dreamy and hazy with supple flute lines intertwining with muted viola and resonant harp chords to create a quintessential Debussyian soundscape. The interlude that followed was perhaps the most obviously inspired by the French Baroque, the minuet that Debussy evoked was both elegant and ghostly in equal fashion. The finale was exuberant and colourful and a fitting end to one of the composer’s most original and memorable scores. The Pelléas Ensemble were excellent throughout and were equally good as communicators, introducing each piece in a clear and succinct fashion that helped shine more light on these interesting and unusual compositions. A ‘gift’ the Debussy sonata may have been for the Pelléas Ensemble, but a gift also for the large, receptive audience were the Pelléas Ensemble.
2nd May 2022
© Phillip A Cooke 2022