At the age of just 21, Adam Walker was the youngest principal flutist ever appointed to that position in the London Symphony Orchestra. He currently plays with the Sinfonia of London (a mostly studio recording orchestra) and is making quite a go at a solo career with several recordings already. I have acquired a few of them, including two Chandos releases of French music which stand out - as soloist in Dutilluex’s Sonatine with John Wilson conducting, and as a chamber musician with the woodwind quintet, Belle Epoque. (There is a 3rd album of French solo music as well, which I have not yet heard.) He has also recorded the splendid Puts Flute Concerto for Naxos; and on NMC Records, a very difficult (i.e. contemporary, atonal) concerto written for him by his pianist on this album, Huw Watkins. I was pleasantly relieved to hear Mr. Watkins play so beautifully and sensitively in this delightful flute repertoire - music which couldn’t possibly be farther removed from his own compositions.
Adam Walker is certainly one of the best flute players I've heard - for a variety of reasons. Including:
1. An even tone from top to bottom. The highs don’t stick out louder than the rest (like they do so often with many players); they just sparkle. The lows don’t honk (ala Galway); they’re full, resonant and textured. Throughout the entire range, notes all emanate from the same source, with the same tonal sound qualities – just in different registers.
2. Dynamics are endlessly varied, from subtle to pronounced, with luminous expression and vivid characterization.
3. Absolutely resplendent tone, which he varies, along with the speed and intensity of vibrato, with subtle shadings to caress a line or bring new life to a musical phrase. And with it, exquisite control in pianissimos. His sound remains vibrant and expressive, never limp. Even at a whisper, with minimal vibrato, it’s still gloriously radiant.
4. Amazing breath control. He hardly pauses for breath until/unless the music requires it. This man can seemingly play all day on a single breath of air.
But it’s not just these technical aspects of his playing which set him apart. It’s also his choice of programming which is simply exemplary. I thought an entire album of “British music for flute and piano” would be a bit boring (even for a flute player like myself) and would tend to all sound the same after a while. But I was wrong. With this fabulous musician running the show, the variety in his playing extends to the variety of the music he plays.
The program from beginning to end is quite simply splendid, comprised of music which is delightful, charming, colorful, expressive and vividly characterized. There is plenty to dazzle but nothing is ostentatiously flashy. It’s the musicianship by flutist and pianist alike which impresses most.
From the very first music we hear, the Miniature Suite by York Bowen, I’m amazed at the variety in the playing. Just listen to how Walker illustrates the humor in the opening Humoresque and the loveliness in the Romance. His phenomenal breath control, especially at pp, is a wonder to behold here. He can play forever without taking a breath. And the final presto is then dashed off effortlessly.
The very short Vaughan Williams is full of charm (I would never guess this was by V.W.) and over much too soon. While the Berkeley is decidedly more contemporary, offering us a tantalizing glimpse of what Walker could do in some 20th-Century French repertoire (Jolivet, Ibert, Tomasi, etc ). Berkeley is tonal though, and this duo brings out his charming side.
The Alwyn Sonata is one of the highlights of the program, with sweeping, rapturous phrases and rich harmonic progression. Watkins really shines here, relishing the glorious piano writing.
The name of the album, Shadow Dances, comes from the first movement of Arnold Bax's Four Pieces. And indeed, this is an interesting little set - lighter than I would expect from this composer. From the first two dances to the concluding grotesque march, Walker's gift of characterization is once again remarkable.
The Ferguson is very short and gentle, reminding me of Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp. The concluding Sonata (another work by York Bowen), is the most substantial of all, at nearly 20 minutes. It is freely rhapsodic and these musicians are simply marvelous in bringing a rapturous, almost improvisational quality to it.
I wasn’t familiar with any of this music. And I found all of it instantly appealing, immersive and thoroughly rewarding. I found on my shelves another British Flute Music collection played by flutist Jeffrey Khaner on a 2002 Avie CD. Only two pieces are duplicated (the Berkeley and the Bowen Sonata) and the contrasts between the two flutists are striking. Khaner's tone in comparison is rather plain (and impassive in pianissimo) and seldom varies. And especially in the Bowen, his playing is just a little bland, lacking the vivid characterization and dynamic and tonal variety which make Walker's playing so extraordinary. Walker's sound, too, is instantly much more vibrant and radiant. (I'd be curious to know what make of flute Khaner plays. Walker plays a Powell, which could partly account for his effulgent tone.) He also takes his time to bring out more color and passion in the music, which is ultimately much more interesting to listen to. I don't mean to diminish Khaner's playing; after all, he was the Cleveland Orchestra's principal flutist prior to assuming that position with the Philadelphia in 1990. But in this music, there is just something special about Adam Walker's playing that Khaner can't match. And it must be noted, too, that Huw Watkins is a more dynamic and involving partner as well.
This Chandos release is a standard CD; no SACD this time. And really, that’s OK - the recorded sound is glorious. The piano is perfectly balanced behind the flute, and both are well-focused and 3-dimensionally placed within a natural, intimate setting. Everywhere their playing is infused with color and texture.
Truthfully, I was not expecting to enjoy this album as much as I did. I can recommend it without hesitation not only to flute players, but to anyone who enjoys lighter, charming chamber music.