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Barthold und Aurele

Michel Debost | July 2013

    The Lifetime Achievement Award that will be bestowed at the NFA New Orleans convention on Aurèle Nicolet and Barthold Kuijken and the Service Award to Angeleita Floyd (see page 6) are a welcome symbol of the NFA’s plurality and of its purpose over the last 40 years. If I remember correctly, Jean-Pierre Rampal was in 1991 the first recipient of this “Nobel Prize of Flute Players,” honoring people who have in one way or another, opened new doors for the flute and flutists.
    Nobody has ever claimed financial fortune from it. Record or CD sales are not its barometer. Politics, for once, have no meaning and carry no weight for this “Académie Internationale.”
    Barthold Kuijken and his brothers Sigiswald (violin) and Wieland (Baroque cello and viola da gamba) are pioneers of a new understanding of Baroque music. They approach music not from the cryptic notes asleep on dusty pages, but from the instruments themselves, the original vehicles of forgotten treasures. Their breakthrough was to consider that players should adapt themselves to the instruments as they were, instead of forcing modern improvements onto the instruments. Barthold, the flute player, performs and teaches on originals or copies tuned to lower pitches. His performances are convincing because they sound quite natural. His editions are scrupulous, a welcome change from the various available scores that, unfortunately, pass for the sacred word.
    Aurèle Nicolet, on the other hand, has always questioned his own ways and is ever ready to find different solutions. He is aware that great music can lend itself to different interpretations and considers that the flute, as an instrument, is less important as a means to the end than the musical interpretation. He no longer performs, but when he did, he would play any flute lying around and refused any instrumental fetishisms, such as brands of flutes and head-joints. For years he played on a Moyse model Couesnon that looked like something the cat dragged in. He was convinced by Barthold Kuijken’s ideas, but his preferred etude book was the Flute Obbligatos from the J.S. Bach Cantatas, played on the modern flute.
    Whereas Barthold Kuijken put the Baroque flute where it had belonged, Aurèle Nicolet was leading the modern flute to be one of the mainstays of contemporary music, including that by F. Martin, Berio, Boulez, Carter, Dallapiccola, Kagel, Stockhausen, and Ferneyhough.
    Both also have in common being from countries whose size is deceptive. Flanders is the home of the Kuijkens, astride the Flemish and French cultures; while Nicolet’s home of Switzerland has four different languages, including French, German, and Italian.
    My first impression of Aurèle Nicolet dates back more than sixty years. At the time I was aspiring to become a student at the Paris Conservatory. One day it was announced that the Berlin Philharmonic would play at the Paris Opera under the direction of Wilhelm Furtwängler. This was an historic concert, for during the previous ten years, German visitors to Paris had not been musicians in full concert dress. The program was Schumann Symphony No. 4, Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, and the J.S. Bach Suite No. 2 in B Minor for flute and orchestra.
    I secured tickets, excited to hear the Bach Suite with that prestigious orchestra. The Berlin Philharmonic was in full complement for this work, with ten contrabasses, at least 30 violins, four flutes blowing the tuttis, and a young hairy flutist playing the solos. It certainly was not the Harnoncourt, Kuijken and Company Baroque style of playing we hear today, but pure Furtwängler, a legend himself. I did not know that ten years later the flutist with the crazy hair would become my lifetime friend.
    What draws me to Nicolet as much as his being a musician of genius, are the paradoxes which make him a unique human being. He is at once Poet and Peasant, esthete and proletarian. Switzerland is his fiber, yet he rejects some of its traits. He loves liberty and freedom of thought, but he used to enjoy going to totalitarian regimes like the Soviet Union or China, which he preferred to the physical comforts of America and the superficial French intellectual affectations. He is truly secular but inhabited by the divine nature of ideas and spirit. Sometimes he is skeptical about Germany, but is imbued in German culture. He is irritated by French superficiality, but like a lover, demanding and sincere. He is viewed by the French as a man of Germanic culture, but by the Germans as a sort of French compromise.
   He always promoted and performed contemporary music, yet urged his younger colleagues (myself included) to the teachings of Marcel Moyse who championed the “salon” music that he hated.
During the 1960s Nicolet and I were often on tour with the Münchener Bach-Orchester und Chor led by Karl Richter. We both thought Richter was a miraculous performer and scholar of J.S. Bach’s oratorios and cantatas even though today his interpretations are considered overly Romantic.
    During these long tours, we would redefine the world, each with our own perspective. We were in turn to each other like Hermann Hesse’s Narciss und Goldmund, either the hedonist or the aesthete (a lover of art and ideas). Nicolet introduced me to Hölderlin, von Kleist, and Thomas Mann, while I took him to Baudelaire and Mallarmé. Now when we meet, which is too seldom, we pick up where we left off a generation ago.
    I salute my friends and colleagues in their receiving the National Flute Association’s awards. Bravi Aurèle Nicolet, Barthold Kuijken, and Angeleita Floyd.