Because of the scheduled conductor, Daniele Gatti, I had been looking forward to this weekend’s BSO concerts. His iron-fisted domination of Wagner last year was fascinating; his Mahler, performed in the same fashion, was less so. I was intrigued to see what he would do to a curious program of Bach, Stravinsky and Beethoven. Unfortunately, imposing overwhelming control over an orchestra can be trying, and Gatti is now on a two-month physician-commanded break to recover from shoulder tendonitis. Instead, we had François-Xavier Roth on the podium making his BSO and American debut. It turns out we were meeting someone who had a similar singlemindedness, but of a rather different variety.
Roth has a bewilderingly wide-ranging repertoire. He founded Les Siècles in France, an orchestra made up of young players that use both modern and historical instruments, occasionally on the same program. Their most recent recording will be The Rite of Spring and Petroushka on “period instruments” (!). They have their own series on French television, which draws up to three million viewers. Roth’s repertoire extends into the very modern as well: he will be making his debut at the Berlin Staatsoper with Morton Feldman’s Neither, and is working on cycle of the music of Pierre Boulez. He is the principal conductor of the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg., and has quite a list of impending engagements. On the evidence of this one evening, he is a musician who loves high energy and high contrast. He conducts without a baton; his movements are controlled with a sense of alertness and tension driving them. Tempos throughout were rapid, with a frequent sense of pressing forward, sometimes too much so. Occasionally that force that animates him topples the music into anxiety, impatience and confusion. As a result, two-thirds of the program was exhilarating, one third frustrating.
The heart of that exhilarating two-thirds was Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, a fortunate coincidence for this inadvertent BSO debut, as it was commissioned by the BSO to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary. The piece is often described as forbidding or austere; although it is based on Biblical song, the texts are in Latin, and Stravinsky is uninterested in tickling any generic emotion with his music. Stephen Ledbetter’s program notes contain a perfectly idiomatic quote from Stravinsky, who being asked to write something “popular” took the word “not in the publisher’s meaning of ‘adapting to the understanding of the people,’ but in the sense of ‘something universally admired,’” and who wished “to counter the many composers who had abused these magisterial verses as pegs for their own lyrico-sentimental ‘feelings.’” Roth, the orchestra, and the always excellent Tanglewood Festival Chorus under John Oliver produced an experience that was ravishing and powerful while remaining true to Stravinsky’s aesthetic. Roth paid close attention to Stravinsky’s unusual orchestration, drawing finely balanced contrasting sound from the ensemble of percussion, piano, low strings, harp, two pianos and large wind choir. The sound was warm but not ingratiating, clear but never dry. In the first movement the chorus was threateningly powerful, its entrances like well-aimed and soberly considered punches. The second movement begins as a nest of branching polyphony; Stravinsky avoids explicit word-painting, but it is easy to see the increasing density of the music as evoking the “pit of misery and mire of dregs” of the psalmist. Roth allowed the texture to darken and thicken, riding just on the edge of congestion, before the “new canticle,” a muscular, even frightening “song to our God.” The performance evoked a joy and excitement without straining to do so, as if the magnetism of the playing induced the emotion over a great distance rather than attempting to touch us directly.
After the Stravinsky there was intermission, and then Beethoven. First, a brief rarity, never performed by the BSO: the Elegiac Song of 1814, originally for chorus and string quartet. Written to commemorate the death of the wife of a friend, it is a major key arrangement of a brief text of unknown origin. Subdued but not grieving, quietly moving, the work is written in a more personal idiom than most of the more familiar works. Despite the huge forces on stage, it felt domestic and understated. It was the one point in the evening where Roth’s conducting seemed relaxed, and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus sang radiantly and caressingly.
The pieces that bookended the evening were both partial successes. Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, which ended the evening, began with immense promise. The opening mysteries were especially anxious and tension filled. The many detached eighth-notes were fully articulated but nevertheless surrounded by slightly more silence in the rests, a taut effect that gave an edge to each individual pitch. Beethoven’s dynamic swellings and ebbings were fully indulged. When it finally was all cast away by the boisterous and good-natured main subject it was like a warm breeze suddenly appearing ahead of the sun a stiff breeze, though, not a gentle one. The movement sustained that healthy good humor, traveling at an athletic clip. The second movement moved quickly as well, a rapid stroll, except when William Hudgins’ clarinet had its solos; then the world slowed dramatically as his phrases reached their apex, only to resume its pace as they finished. They were touching moments, a little sentimental and just a little seductive. But Roth’s energy became more restless and less focused with the first notes of the third movement, and the finale was breathless and coarse.
Even stranger was the opener, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1. Given Roth’s experience with both modern and period instruments you would not have expected that the first two movements would be raucous, unbalanced and rhythmically uncertain. The BSO last played the piece in 1966, and I was beginning to think it was just as well Symphony Hall sounded cavernous and full of echoes, the horns and strings were unable to blend, and the first movement in particular was almost chaotic. The second movement was somewhat better, as violinist Daniel Phillips and oboist John Ferrillo traded Bach’s ornate solo line in intelligent conversation, over an accompaniment not quite in sync. Phillips played the violino piccolo part on a ¾ size violin that his grandfather, a Pittsburgh luthier, made for him. It sounded thin in the first movement, but piquant in the second. Then, as soon as the first notes of the final movement sounded, it was as if the music had snapped into focus. The horns reconciled with the strings, who were suddenly possessed of a satiny tone. Each of the episodes of the movement had its own sound worlds: the wistful double-reed Trio; the horn-and-oboe Trio, simultaneously triumphant and a little goofy; the Polonaise for strings, alternately shadowy and declamatory. The audience appeared divided at the end of the evening how to receive Roth; it was a good-sized crowd, and at the end a sizable portion stood, while an equally large group headed immediately for the exits. Given the pleasure the majority of the program gave, it would be worth hearing him again, but with his own repertoire, so we can be sure we are hearing him on his own terms.