Among the world’s finest flutists, there are one or two whose tone is a trifle more golden and a few whose playing is more emotional. But Jean-Pierre Rampal is special even among his peers. Not only has Rampal mastered the flute and its literature with more elegance, virtuosity and success than anyone else, he offers something no other flutists can. Year after year for more than three decades now, Rampal continues to pack concert halls from New York to Tokyo with performances whose musical intensity rivals that of Dylan or Jagger. If there is one exponent of the instrument who is responsible for the flute’s current popularity among the young, it is Jean-Pierre Rampal.
At 55, he is also the most recorded flutist—the word he prefers to the pretentious “flautist”—in history. The genial, charming Frenchman cannot recall the extent of his own discography, but it is more than 150 recordings on every known label. He often has several LPs moving up the classical charts simultaneously. Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano, featuring Rampal and composer Claude Boiling, recently was named the best-selling classical record of 1976.
Rampal takes the unending praise from critics and public with graceful modesty. “The best?” he asked rhetorically as he ended the first of his two annual U.S. tours. “There are others who are wonderful. What matters is that I never tire of playing—or of audiences. It is always a joy to play things that touch the heart.” Rampal’s repertoire ranges from Handel to Ravi Shankar, and he scours museums and libraries for unknown works. In addition to playing over 150 concerts each year, he teaches master classes all over the world and has turned his hand to conducting.
The son of a flutist, Rampal recently toured Japan with his father, now 81. There, as usual, Rampal Jr. was beseiged by young female fans whom he affectionately calls “the gigglers.” When in Paris with his harpist wife, Françoise, or at their vacation home in Corsica, Rampal indulges in the best of food and wines. “I support well,” he smiles, “and am surrounded by beautiful cooks.”
Jean-Pierre planned on becoming a doctor until World War II interrupted his medical studies. When his French army unit was ordered to a Nazi work camp in 1943, Rampal deserted in Marseilles. Eluding the Germans, he enrolled at the Paris Conservatory of Music in the flute, which he had begun playing perfunctorily at 13. Within six months he took the school’s top honors. After a brief tenure with the Paris Opéra orchestra, Rampal began playing concerts and has never stopped.
In New York recently Rampal joined an old friend, clarinetist Benny Goodman, for a private concert of chamber music and likened the tone of his 14-karat-gold flute “to the sound of humanity itself.” Goodman was later asked about the sound. “It was,” the laconic American answered, “kinda nice.”