At long last, Chandos, the premier Classical record label, welcomes a flutist of real caliber to its roster. Adam Walker (the youngest principal flutist to ever be appointed to the LSO, in 2009) appears in two new recordings, released simultaneously, one of which is the subject of this review.
Belle Epoque showcases Walker playing chamber music as a member of the Orsino Ensemble, partnered with featured pianist, Pavel Kolesnikov. This is a nice variety of French chamber works, for various wind instruments and piano. The music is wonderful, the playing is marvelous, and the sound is fabulous. And it comes on a multi-channel SACD.
Just one work features the entire woodwind quintet plus piano (Roussel Divertissement), and two minus the horn (Saint-Saens Caprice and Caplet Quintet). The remaining works are for solo instrument and piano.
Beginning with the latter, clarinetist Matthew Hunt playing the Debussy Premier Rhapsody is enjoyable enough, although his tone is slightly thinner than I'm used to hearing (especially up high) and I could do without his hints of vibrato. And while he certainly cannot be faulted for faithfully observing the pianissimo markings in the score, a little more air flow might have been beneficial. (Just listen to David Shifrin play it, on a magnificent 2000 Delos 3-CD set of Debussy chamber music.) But, quibbles aside, this is a lovely reading of the piece, if not the most sumptuous. (I always miss the orchestra in the piano original, and it leaves absolutely nowhere for the clarinet to hide.)
Adam Walker is inspiring in Chaminade's ubiquitous Concertino. It is more gentle and sweetly singing than usual, although at a nicely flowing tempo. Similar to the Debussy mentioned above, it features playing which highlights the pianissimo extreme of the range. Walker plays with a well-supported, sustained tone, which is positively glowing and radiant. He also plays with a marvelous variety of sound - altering his vibrato speed and intensity as necessary to make beautifully shaped musical phrases. The same can be said for his Debussy Syrinx, which is less intense than usual. And again, his radiant sound is sheer loveliness and his dynamic range is remarkable.
Pavel Kolesnikov's piano accompaniments are sensitive and responsive. His delicate touch mirrors the soloists' pianissimos beautifully, helped by a perfect balance/perspective from the Chandos engineers.
The larger works are expertly done and played with enthusiasm. I was struck by the individuality of each player, along with superb unity of ensemble - a winning combination. And I was aware of Adam Walker's ability to vary his flute tone to blend with the oboe, yet retain its glorious vibrancy and radiance. This is simply sensational flute playing.
Speaking of sensational flute playing, the Saint-Saens Caprice is a somewhat sappy set of themes and variations, and features flashy outbursts for both the flute and piano. Walker and Kolesnikov certainly demonstrate their virtuoso chops with dazzling bravura. The Caplet Quintet (the longest work here by far, at nearly 30 minutes) and the Roussel Divertissement are more musically substantial. Their variety of tonal color and compositional resourcefulness are almost symphonic in nature. The Chandos recorded sound is full-bodied and robust, providing thrilling impact and presence.
On a programming note, it's odd that Syrinx, for solo flute, comes last on the CD. Just before it, the Allegro con fuoco of the Caplet provides a stirring finale, and would have been a terrific end of the concert. The melancholy Debussy encore didn't feel right for me. Next time I will program the player to play this track after the Chaminade, where it is better suited.
This Chandos disc was recorded in July 2020, but not released until February 2021, coinciding with the release of Walker's solo album, French Works for Flute (with pianist James Baillieu). Chandos is clearly celebrating their 'exclusive' recording partnership with him. It's interesting both albums are made up entirely of French repertoire. I would welcome another album in the near future featuring some difficult 20th-Century flute music. And Chandos could use such a collection in its catalog, played by such a master flutist!