Guy Braunstein & Emmanuel Pahud: “We’re a bit like twins”

Author: Clemency Burton-Hill

Imagine this: you are, respectively, concertmaster and section leader of the Berlin Philharmonic, arguably the greatest orchestra in the world. You get to perform regularly under some of the world’s finest conductors in the grandest concert houses on the planet; to play every jewel in the repertoire and travel the world alongside some of the most accomplished orchestral musicians and magnificent virtuosi in existence. To have a dazzling solo, chamber and recording career on top of all this, then, might almost seem greedy – not to mention too much for any mere mortal to dream of.

But for violinist Guy Braunstein and flautist Emmanuel Pahud, this combining of their exalted positions within the Berlin Philharmonic with their solo and chamber careers is not only a happy sideline, it’s a musical necessity. ‘To be a true all-round player, you know, as they say in basketball, I really need all three elements to feel complete as a musician, otherwise something is missing and the music suffers,’ Braunstein tells me from Berlin. ‘I joined the Berlin Philharmonic at 28, by which time I had already played the great concertos of Beethoven, Brahms. If I play them now, with all this symphonic experience behind me, I of course play them very differently. And vice versa.’ As far as Pahud is concerned, ‘it’s like having two musical lives, but one musical world.’

Braunstein believes that all orchestral musicians should be regularly performing solos and chamber music as an adjunct to their symphonic work, and suspects they are ‘missing out’ if they don’t. ‘It’s like the story of the chicken and the egg,’ he reasons. ‘Of course it is not easy to balance everything, but I don’t believe that any musician is complete without experiencing the vaster view of all the aspects of a composer’s work.’

Easy enough for him to say, perhaps. I wonder if he and Emmanuel ever meet resentment from other members of the orchestra who are not in a position to develop such highly visible solo careers, especially as, Braunstein tells me, he is these days ‘more often on stage away from the Berlin Philharmonic than with it.’

‘I don’t think about that,’ says Pahud, who is used to juggling musical lives, having been winning international competitions and going off to play principal flute at the Basel Radio Symphony Orchestra whilst he was still a student in Paris. ‘Nobody can blame you so long as you are really committed to what you do. All these years, it’s been a balancing act for me. But it’s important: it means you have an open window or door onto a completely different musical world. And that means you get the best of all possible worlds.’

‘Anyway, we are not the only ones with such ties elsewhere,’ Braunstein points out. ‘It is actually encouraged because in the long run it makes everyone better musicians. So you lose some, in that it’s hard for the orchestra to pin people down logistically, but you win much more.’ He pauses. ‘The real question, of course, is when do you have time for breakfast? When do you sleep?’

He is joking, but only just; their schedules are typically jam-packed and this month, Braunstein and Pahud will be back on the road again. The Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle will be in London for a series of concerts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Barbican, and Braunstein reckons audiences are in for something very special indeed.

‘It’s going to be a real treat,’ he promises. ‘I will take a risk here and say that every orchestra has its ups and downs and we also had a series of difficulties over these past eight years under Sir Simon as we got to know each other. But right now, we are altogether in heaven. It’s difficult to even put into words the evolution of how we got to this point, but now we reach much higher ground. Seriously, we are living the dream.’

‘It’s a real privilege to be a member of this orchestra at this time,’ agrees Pahud, who joined the Berlin Philharmonic as its principal flute and youngest player at the tender age of 22 and returned in 2002, under Rattle, after an 18-month sabbatical. The orchestra is, quite evidently, not like any other. As Braunstein admits – and embodies – ‘we’re hard to contain’. More so than any others, he says, it is full of ‘anarchistic noise, jokes in rehearsals, very lively but with lots of strange characters and very distinct individuals.’ Perhaps this is the key to its extraordinary sound; nevertheless, he says the ‘definition of a good orchestra is that most people are willing to think the same way about a certain piece of music’ and now, under the baton of Sir Simon, not only is that happening, but ‘we have reached seventh heaven’.

British audiences – who unsurprisingly snapped up all available tickets immediately they went on sale – will also be gratified to hear how excited the orchestra are about playing again in London. ‘There are hardly any other places where we feel such electricity, you know; we really feel that emanating from the hall in London,’ says Braunstein. ‘Trust me, in London we always finish up more sweaty than in other places!’ I wonder if this is because Sir Simon is on home turf – always an emotional moment for British audiences? ‘Sure, yes, he comes to play a home game and that is special,’ agrees Braunstein, ‘but, you know – he raises his arms and he’s not English, he is Mahler. Just a bit more Bohemian, a bit more Jewish, a bit more Viennese. This ability, you find very rarely, even in great conductors.’

If, as Pahud maintains, the juggling of solo and orchestral work is the ideal way to balance the ‘limitations’ of being an orchestral flautist with the ‘risks’ associated with going it alone, chamber music offers something of an ‘intermediate’ way, one in which ‘we all share responsibility’. After the London BPO tour Braunstein and Pahud, along with clarinettist Paul Meyer, pianist Eric LeSage and cellist Zvi Plesser, will be in Paris, Munich and Vienna performing an ambitious chamber music programme of Zemlinsky, Berg, Schoenberg, Korngold, Schubert and Haydn, which Pahud predicts will be ‘a great joy’.

‘We spend a lot of time together both on and off stage. We’re a bit like twins,’ says Braunstein, who even invited Pahud to be his best man at his wedding. ‘We play together all the time, and we come from the same place, musically. It’s difficult to find much flute and fiddle repertoire but as much as there is, we do. And we almost never need to say anything to each other, to explain anything,’ he says. Pahud agrees. ‘The trust and confidence we share on a personal level is translated in to the way we make music,’ he says. Braunstein chuckles. ‘That definitely makes life more enjoyable,’ he quips. ‘It keeps us younger.’

Given the lives they lead, that can be no bad thing.

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