WHEN you think of the flute, you automatically think of James Galway. Indeed most of us would be very hard pressed to think of anyone else at all. It is quite remarkable to realise that the name of someone who came to prominence as long ago as 1975 should still be almost synonymous with the instrument. Yet James Galway remains up there in a class of his own, his overall mastery of the instrument unsurpassed.
With over 65 CDs to his credit, it is very tempting to dismiss such an unashamedly popular performer as just a showman, his programme of virtuoso crowd-pleasers a glitzy showcase that he could probably play in his sleep. But, be that as it may, his technique and artistry remain thrilling, the golden tone he produces from his famous twenty-carat golden flute breathtaking, and his breathing and control of dynamics simply astounding. (I understand that as a student he used to practise holding his breath between stations whilst travelling on the London Underground – an exercise that certainly seems to paid dividends.) And, he is very serious about his music too. One only needs to take a look at some of the Youtube clips from his master classes or to note the number of charitable organisations with which he is connected to realise that he is far, far more than just a hugely successful entertainer. When not playing, he is a funny little grey-haired Irishman, almost leprechaun-like, with an easy ability to mock his roots and joke with his audience. But, as soon as he puts his flute to his mouth, we and he are taken over by this fluid, ethereal, golden sound – together lost in and lost to the music.
As one might expect, most of his programme consisted of pieces of astonishing virtuosity. The concert opened with Hamilton Harty’s “In Ireland” Fantasy; from the word go it was clear we were going to be dazzled by what one of my flautist friends calls “finger wiggling”. In the ever popular “Carnival of Venice” and again in Morlacchi’s “Il Pastore Svizzero” I was almost convinced there were two golden flutes playing, such was Galway’s ability to make his instrument, which can, of course, only play a melody line, sound like one that can play harmony as well. His fingers, hardly appearing to move, remained in close contact with the keys, thereby enabling unending strings of demisemiquavers to rise, seemingly without effort, from his lips.
Galway was, in fact, twice joined by a second golden flute when he and his American wife Jeanne joined forces, firstly to play a Fantasy on Verdi’s “Rigoletto” and then, later on, to perform an arrangement of Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca”. Interestingly though, her flute was only eighteen-carat gold! One hopes this is not a recipe for marital discord.
The concert proper ended with a further fantasy, this time on melodies from Bizet’s “Carmen”. As one might imagine, this was yet another piece that required considerable technique, making it a suitably flamboyant choice for the finale. For me, however, it was the less overtly showy pieces that impressed me most. The lovely arrangements of Debussy’s “En Bateau” and “Clair de Lune”, beautifully accompanied by Anne Marshall on the piano, showed just what a consummate artist Galway is. Add to this the glorious surroundings of Sherborne Abbey and I suspect I was as close to heaven as I am likely to get in this world.
Encores were clearly going to be called for and his choice of an exquisite yet simple transcription of Saint-Saens’ “The Swan” gave rise to a clear “aah” from the audience, whilst the moving and melancholy strains of “Londonderry Air” brought the evening to a perfect and serene close. Perhaps we had all had enough brilliance for one day.