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Gossec Arrives After 120 Years


French conductor François-Xavier Roth scored a double triumph in his first performance this season with the Boston Symphony (his only prior performances were in 2014) on Thursday: he brought to the Boston public a fascinating piece of Classical-era music by a composer who hadn’t reached Symphony audiences once in its nearly 120 years; and he brought a nearly unheard-of freshness to one of the grand staples of the symphonic repertoire. So, two out of three isn’t at all bad, and the unsurprisingness of the third can’t really be blamed on his direction.

François-Joseph Gossec, a near contemporary of Haydn (b. 1734) who died at age 95, having outlived Beethoven and Schubert, composed the evening’s novelty among novelties: the Symphonie à 17 parties. Widely respected and influential during his lifetime, about the only thing he gets credit for now—one hopes this will change—is a dippy little gavotte that beginning students of just about everything play and that crept into the score of numerous Warner Brothers cartoons. One of the few French composers of his age to work extensively in the realm of abstract musical forms, he produced over 50 symphonies, of which this one, in F from 1809, was his last. He managed to navigate the treacherous shoals of the French Revolution by becoming, after a fashion, the revolution’s bandmaster, composing some of the grandiose band and monster-chorus works favored in the new republic (his amply scored Requiem was, it is said, a key inspiration for Berlioz’s). At the same time, he and several younger colleagues were among the founders of the Paris Conservatoire, whose subsequent fusty reputation was an encrustation on its demotic and egalitarian origins.

The symphony itself is something of a revelation. The notion of 17 parts is a bit of a cheat, since the strings are counted as one voice per score line, while the copious wind contingent (all that military band music gave Gossec a flair for wind and brass writing) counted individually even when instruments were in pairs; the 17th “part” is the tympani. While the fine program note by Hugh Macdonald claims that Gossec would not have known Beethoven’s symphonies in 1809, the first movement strongly suggests either that he had or that he had absorbed some of their intensity through the intermediation of such as Étienne Nicolas Méhul. It opens with immediate seriousness of purpose that emerges into a congenial and well-developed sonata movement, with some fine melodic and harmonic turns. Roth took all this at a lively tempo, and crafted a fine balance between the strings and the winds (the first and second violins were divided across from each other, with cellos and basses to the left and violas to the right, and the winds and brass in a compact bloc in the center). The slow movement was more Mozartean in flavor, and Roth shaped it well with dynamic contrasts and well-turned phrase endings. The standout moments of this work, however, came in the “minuetto,” which was as unlike a Haydn or Mozart minuet in its way as Beethoven’s were in other ways: set in minor mode, with a strong contrapuntal component, and in Roth’s hands both brisk and brusque, it is hard to anticipate where it came from in the context of the rest of the symphony. In some ways it reaches back to Gluck or even C.P.E. Bach in its storminess. The finale is as chipper as the minuet is dark, more conventionally Haydnesque despite its strong emphasis on the wind band. The BSO should give us more Gossec, and also more of his colleagues like Méhul.

The first half of this remarkably full program (roughly 100 minutes of music in total) ended with Mozart’s Concerto in C for Flute and Harp, K. 299 (a/k/a K. 297C), with BSO principals Elizabeth Rowe and Jessica Zhou as soloists. Rather surprisingly, the BSO has not performed this at Symphony Hall since 1982. We last heard Zhou perform this along with Paula Robison with the Longwood Symphony in 2014; you can read the description of the piece here. Except for the exquisite slow movement, it’s not top-drawer Mozart, but it remains popular. Roth and the soloists did all they could to bring it forward, with snappy tempi and, especially in Zhou’s case, an industriously hard-charging expressivity. Rowe’s fluent, silky line was a fine counterpoint to the pianistic harp part (a performance on a wooden flute, such as this one, can present a deeper, rounder sound than a metal one). Rowe and Zhou mixed and matched their cadenzas (unusually, this concerto has one in each movement, though the last movement’s is rather short), taking Marius Flothuis’s in the outer movements and cobbling one together from him and Carl Reinecke for the Andantino. Reinecke’s are perhaps the most commonly performed for all movements, while some daring performers use controversial ones by Carlos Salzedo.

Jessica Zhou and Elizabeth Rowe with Francois-Xavier Roth (Winslow Townson photo)
Jessica Zhou and Elizabeth Rowe with Francois-Xavier Roth (Winslow Townson photo)

The capstone of the evening was Roth’s no-prisoners-taken rendition of Beethoven’s Symphony, No. 3 in E-flat Major, op. 55, Eroica. From start to finish, it made one sit up and take notice: first, of the pounding, breathless, almost breakneck tempo, then, of the sharp accents and the interstitial silences, then of the paramount clarity of the lines, and finally of the architectural coherence of the entire concept. Roth’s is a very French Napoleon—brash, headstrong, decisive, rough and a bit vulgar; definitely not a philosopher. There were lots of details to admire, like the phrasing of the “second second” subject of the first movement, which can often be flabby, here perfectly shaped into a coherent thought. Roth slowed down a bit for the great dissonant chords near the end of the development, but one of our few reservations about this performance was that the logic of why they were there wasn’t properly explained in the passages leading up to them. The funeral march was, at its also somewhat accelerated tempo, more clear in its construction and more teleological in its trajectory than most performances we’ve heard, either live or on recordings, with some spine-tingling pianissimos along the way. The scherzo’s outer sections were full of suppressed tension and energy only occasionally relieved by the big explosive statements of the theme, while the trio’s trio of horns, led by James Sommerville, was glorious and orotund (there were four horns in the orchestra, though only three are called for in the score; we feel a bit sorry for no. 4, who was silent in this section but whose role, however, was crucial in the finale). Speaking of which, what always struck us as a key weakness in this symphony is that Beethoven didn’t augment the brass section with trombones in the finale for the grand final statement of the theme. Roth made up for this both by adding the fourth horn and by making sure that the bottom range of the horns perfectly counterbalanced the trumpets’ propensity to shrillness. Another interesting feature of Roth’s reading was to have the first two variations of the “outline” theme, for strings only, played just by the quartet of principals—that’s not in the score, but it lends delicacy to offset what is pretty much a fully resonant movement.

Roth’s brilliant way with the Eroica (we’re not sure it would be our desert island version, but something like it needs to be part of everyone’s experience of this work) made us take heed, especially coming at the end of what was, in hindsight, a brilliantly conceived program. What if Beethoven had never happened? For Haydn and Mozart, and Gossec and many others, including even Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, a symphony was a sometimes witty, sometimes touching, sometimes learned entertainment. To Mahler it was a visual reality device. But to Beethoven it was a revolution and a manifesto, in fact two revolutions in one career. Without the Eroica (and the Choral that proceeded logically from it) could Wagner have happened? One’s whole idea of what a symphony can be changed in an instant. It lends credence, in a way, to the “great individual” theory of history—just one idiosyncratic person can turn the world upside down and make a revolution, and there’s no predicting when and where it will happen. By the end of the BSO program, the audience was witness to that revolution and understood it in context.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.


16 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. What a brilliantly conceived program by Maestro Roth! The performances of all three pieces sparkled and enchanted their way into our consciousness. Please, please bring Francois Xavier Roth back to us as often as possible! BRAVO!

    Comment by Robert Clifford — January 9, 2016 at 1:28 am

  2. Very interesting and informative review, thank you. However, I must quarrel with your equating “French” with “a bit vulgar.” I think you mean to refer to the streak of “Jacobin” populism that is embedded in the legacy of the French Revolution and expressed in the motto of “Equality and Brotherhood.” In English, the word “vulgar” connotes something very different, namely the effect of an (Anglo-saxon style) oligarchical society on the “lower” classes, namely to ape the elites, show interest in “Celebrities,” buy tea cups with “Princes Diana”” effigy on it, etc.. “Vulgarity” emerges when the best education is private and when a common cultural patrimony is usurped by elites as a status symbol and as a reward for economic success (e.g., Shakespeare taught at Phillips Academy, not in public schools in Alabama). While I will not deny (Tocqueville’s concern) that a Napoleonic/Jacobin commitment to a real meritocracy and to the “general will” is fraught with possible authoritarian danger, I would not describe it as “rough and vulgar” but as “spirited and communitarian.” And you are certainly right that Beethoven, like Goethe and Hegel, admired many egalitarian Napoleonic ideas and wished to see them re-shape their own aristocratic world.

    Comment by Ashley — January 9, 2016 at 9:19 am

  3. The length of Gossec’s career can be measured by the observation that while he outlived Beethoven and Schubert, he began his career in Paris as a protégé of Rameau. His enormous and magnificent Requiem (or Grande Messe des Morts, as the French call it) was not a Revolutionary-era piece, but the work with which he established his reputation in the 1760’s. It’s quite possible that it was an influence not only on Berlioz, but on Mozart, who got to know Gossec during his brief, unfortunate time in Paris, and called him a good friend. It would be thrilling if some local ensemble would take it on, but I don’t expect it; it requires fairly large forces and is over an hour long. There is an excellent recording of it on a double-CD by Naxos, conducted by Diego Fasolis and paired with the Symphony in 17 parts – two works written almost 50 years apart.

    Comment by SamW — January 9, 2016 at 12:22 pm

  4. The finale of the Eroica can sometimes seem to be extremely long. I find myself looking at my watch during the slow section. Not in this performance! It wasn’t just the brisk tempo. Somehow every variation followed logically from the one before, as if the entire movement were a single gesture.

    Comment by Mark Lutton — January 9, 2016 at 9:16 pm

  5. Very interesting Eroica– it would be interesting to compare with Manfred Honeck’s performance a year or two ago. Both were more or less at the composer’s published tempi (except that Honeck played the second movement noticeably slower). Honeck’s performance seemed to have a more consistent emotional narrative, which made the tempo transitions a bit more reliable and logical.

    By contrast, Roth’s first movement exposition chattered between two sides of a base tempo– the music was just clean and simple enough that the gear changes and corrections were a little too obvious. By the development, everyone was back in the groove, and the music had enough going on in it that you couldn’t peg any moment as obviously too fast or slow. Tonight, the lead-in to the big dissonances made perfect sense. What truly surprised me was the huge rhetorical pauses in the second movement and bits of the fourth. Not ineffective, but I’d hate to see them crystallized and imitated the way a lot of, for example, Georg Szell’s mannerisms once got picked up and recycled by youth orchestras.

    Other differences– Roth encouraged a more “early music” sort of bowing articulation, especially early in the first movement. Less vibrato, too, on the whole.

    Anyway, it was a very exciting performance all around. A lot of very clean, well-balanced stuff going on in the Gossec and Mozart, and if the Beethoven wasn’t perfect at every moment, it was headed very much in the right direction. If Roth were the music director and had taken this program on tour, it would have been even better.

    Other tidbit tonight– I don’t know if the soloists brought their studios or had claques working the ovations, but they got very nice recognition. None too little, actually. The Mozart didn’t tax them a huge amount, but they are both wonderful players, and Rowe (in particular) makes a consistently fabulous contribution to her section. It was a pleasure to see them both enjoy more than a brief nod and wave from the conductor after a big symphony.

    Comment by Camilli — January 9, 2016 at 11:18 pm

  6. Manfred Honeck brought theatrical wallop as well as clarity and freshness to Eroica a couple of years ago. BMInt’s Brian had very good things to say as did the comment section. Remember?

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — January 10, 2016 at 9:44 am

  7. On Friday Roth delivered an “Eroica” that was startling and revealing. Grand chords were built from the bottom up ala Furtwaengler, sounding like eruptions, rather than downstrokes ala Toscanini, Szell and others. There were major tempo modifications that didn’t disrupt: the suspense at the end of the first-movement exposition was almost at half tempo, but it worked; in the Funeral March, an astonishing pause (not indicated) after the two cello-bass chords (m.158) preceding the ostinato bass triplets was strange but effective. The orchestra followed faithfully, often with little prompting, indicating how much had been accomplished in rehearsal.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — January 10, 2016 at 10:04 am

  8. An excellent concert. Hooray for Gossec, and more of him ! Or perhaps some of his also-underappreciated contemporaries, like Joseph Martin Kraus. I was reading Lewis Lockwood’s chapter on the Eroica in his new book on Beethoven’s symphonies, and found this sentence: “With this Funeral March, Beethoven introduces death and commemoration into the genre of the symphony for the first time.” Well, Kraus composed a “Symphonie funèbre” for the murdered King Gustav III of Sweden in 1792. It would make an interesting opener on a program with the Eroica. Probably need a bit of a palate cleanser between the two, though. Maybe a bit of Stravinsky.

    The Eroica was exciting and rewarding, but I thought that the “huge rhetorical pauses” (in Camilli’s well-chosen words) near the beginning of the Funeral March interfered with the establishment of a steady pace, which I think is essential to an effective performance of that movement. It is, after all, a march, and the essence of a slow march is inevitability, the proceeding of inexorable necessity. Fate does not hesitate. When the march returns after the various episodes, it should seem like it has been continuing all along, and we should rejoin it without missing a step. That said, I soon forgot about these unnecessary disturbances and became thoroughly absorbed. And the finale made as much sense to me as it ever has.

    Comment by SamW — January 10, 2016 at 12:46 pm

  9. The Eroica demonstrates so well the importance of splitting the violins. A good deal of the music in the work is either lost or flattened out when the violins are seated in one section. For example, the sort of antiphonal “call and response” segment between the two violin sections late in the work and the fugal section early in the fourth movement lose their magical effect when the players all sit together. Also, for someone new to the work the split seating makes it easier and more rewarding, I would think, to follow the musical argument. The split seating was also helpful in the other works in the program, if not as dramatic as in the Beethoven.
    Congratulations to Maestro Roth for maintaining the historically informed seating, and for presenting such a wonderful evening of music.
    As much as I appreciate all that Nelsons has brought to the orchestra as its new director, I am sorry that we have lost Levine’s orchestra seating.

    Comment by edente — January 10, 2016 at 4:19 pm

  10. Camilli’s comment that the Mozart didn’t “tax them too much” does not and should not apply to the harpist. Jessica played it fabulously, as did Elizabeth Rowe, but while it looks on the page like an easy piano part, it is very tricky to pull off with the exquisite dynamics and sensitivity Jessica (and Ms. Rowe) used. I have never heard the Salzedo cadenzas, but have heard and admired Robert Levin’s. I thought John Ferillo’s oboe playing in the Eroica was very beautiful.

    Comment by Susan Miron — January 10, 2016 at 6:35 pm

  11. I attended the Saturday night performance. While I agree with most of the review, I have to confess that I didn’t perceive the “architectural coherence” of the Eroica. There were many interesting departures from the plain-vanilla interpretations that we’ve all heard. Perhaps we (and performers and conductors) are thirsting for novelty. But I’m just not sure how it all fit together. “Breakneck tempo, sharp accents, interstitial silences, and clarity of the lines” were refreshing elements, but if I had to describe the interpretation, I think I’d say it was “quirky.”

    I agree with Sam W’s comment about the pauses in the Funeral March. My reaction to the first pause was “Whoa, what’s happening?!” I noticed that Smirnova and Kang, the associate and assistant concertmasters, were grinning at each other. It was clear that Roth was in charge.

    Comment by Bob D. — January 10, 2016 at 7:04 pm

  12. “Camilli’s comment that the Mozart didn’t “tax them too much” does not and should not apply to the harpist. Jessica played it fabulously, as did Elizabeth Rowe, but while it looks on the page like an easy piano part, it is very tricky to pull off with the exquisite dynamics and sensitivity Jessica (and Ms. Rowe) used”

    Correct– and sorry for forgetting it, or forgetting to make that clear. While it’s not the most intellectually stimulating concerto Mozart ever wrote, there was a lot of hard stuff put in for the original flutist’s daughter and Ms. Zhou truly nailed it.

    Comment by Camilli — January 11, 2016 at 7:32 pm

  13. There is nothing controversial about Carlos Salzedo’s cadenzas for the Mozart. He used Reinecke’s wonderful cadenzas, and merely cut a section that was trite and ineffective. Reinecke’s cadenzas help lift the concerto into the realm of wondrousness, particularly the second movement. Mozart’s writing differs from his piano writing, as he is writing for the harp, which in that time period utilized different patterns and figures, more arpeggiated patterns and less Alberti bass. So the effects are different, but still vital. The first movement has tremendous energy in its musical line, as does the third, which can sometimes be difficult to fully convey. Surprisingly, C Major turns out to be a difficult key for the harp, it is not the most resonant. The harp part is extremely challenging, and the ability of the harpist to bring out phrasing and match the flute is a test of their skill and talent. It is also quite lengthy, a full half-hour with the Salzedo edition. Balance and tempo are always issues, and the conductors are usually the biggest problem in performances of this piece, when they don’t manage the balance and tempo well enough.

    Comment by Saul Davis — January 18, 2016 at 1:05 pm

  14. I must thank the origianl reviewer for the original review. It accomplished something rare–it got me to go to the concert on barely 3-hours’ notice on Saturday the 9th after I had decided against it. Richly rewarding. All that was left at 6:10pm were a few “flip” seats in the 2nd balcony–otherwise a complete sell-out of the pleasant kind; maybe this review was the ciase of that?
    Gossec has been occasionally “played” on WRCB and I take him as “no great shakes”, “not meriting a detour”, but not “schedule a root canal instead”–that’s Dittersdorf! While this may be the fault of WCRB’s/WGBH’s choice and taste “abilities”/”cuteness quotient” and their “Hello Kitty-ization” of classical music I would like the opportunity to hear some of Gossec’s earlier stuff. As someone who didn’t “lose his head” in a treacherous era Gossec obviously must have had to “trim his sails” to the prevailing revolutionary winds just as earlier he had to fulfill the whims of Louis XV and his mistresses. There was more Gossec could have done in thematic development–but at least in the 1st movement he did more developing than Mozart (a One Trick Pony in the development business).
    The Mozart Flute&Harp concerto is one of the few Mozart pieces I go out of the way to hear (some of them like the K. 525 serenade make me envy the deaf). M. avoids some of the cloying mannerisms (overreliance on imitation at the thrid, etc.) he was still into then (think the 29th symphony–tho’ try not to) and does some wonderful things. Makes one wonder how Mozart went about writing for the harp for his only outing and doing so rewardingly well at it; Haydn’s only harp music in his “Orfeo” (1791) is forgettable tho’ it is imitating a Grecian harp. Anyways it was a good performance and the audience liked it–and there were no claques present. So stop knocking the K. 299 F&H concerto–M. did a much better composition job than he did in his “Paris” symphony (K. 297–why oh why won’t WCRB use Koechel and opus numbers? Quick! What’s the number of the Opus 57 Beethoven piano sonato, the Appasionata? Do you know? At least B. hasn’t been re-numbered unlike Schubert or Dvorak (don’t get started on the Haydn opus numbers–we don’t talk about them!) Why not listen to Michael Savage or Howie Carr instead? (just kidding))
    Which leads to the Beethoven. The Eroica. Look, I am probably the least-French-friendly person in Boston–but this was an ear-opening rendition. The music just kept on coming seamlessly in the opening movement; this effect was largely a creation of the brisque tempo. The “rubati” and other such effects must have been on better control on Saturday. Yes, the sudden break in pace was noted (and questioned) but what this performance avoided was what I call the “beached whale” effect this symphony can develop wherein the coherence and cohesiveness of the upwards of twenty minute 1st movement is lost and one becomes immured in so much “musical blubber”. Lastly, I concur in this interpretation of the finale’s causing me to not only NOT check my watch but to regret that the performance was about to end. That is an achievement. (BTW for those who think of Beethoven as Revolutionary and Haydn as Reactionary–TWO Haydn symphonies (331 and #72) have the same introduction-variations-windup [i.e. the band wants to go home!] structure as the Eroica finale.
    All in all, a neat evening out, pre-birthday, with dinner at the Boston Chicken beforehand up the street, just like in the old days. Thank you, BMInt!

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — January 23, 2016 at 3:33 am

  15. Vulgar? I know with all the Allied propaganda and the American sacrifices in two World Wars there is a perception that France has to be The Best Country In The World–or all those GI’s Died In Vain. Consequently most Americans hold this Saintly view of France and French culture. Think Liberty, Equality, Fraternity or something like that. The Truth is that the place hasn’t had a really long-term stable government since 1789 and the French can be quite vicious to themselves and others. Think Robespeirre and the Reign of Terror and then a Hitler-style takeover of most of Europe to Understand France. Five Republics, Two and a half Empires, a Consulate, a Directory, a Restored Monarchy, and a July Monarchy–and a veritable host of provisional governments, let’s see, have I missed anything? Let’s not talk about Petain or La Vendee (apparently 200,000-400,000 killed in 1793 in a precursor to Pol Pot. The Peace to End All Peace–which is the Treaty of Versailles (1919) which the US never ratified. Nice people, the French. Compare them to the English/British, who to this day have yet to have a revolution. (They tried it in the 17th century and have foresworn it ever since.)
    Some minor points: WCRB in its more intelligent days (?) once played some music that had been composed for the French Revolutionaries in 1793. The musical style was clearly antique, more akin to the 1760’s or so. I have read of in clothing styles the “Archaicism Effect” wherein as a “revolt” against existing styles the styles of an earlier era get adolpted: The Dutch in revolt against Spain in the 17th century adopted Spanish clothing styles of the previous century. Here in the 1960’s Youth adopted 19th century clothing styles and beards, etc. Perahps that was going on in France in the 1790’s.
    French musical composition seems to have been heavily slanted to theatrical music in the 18th and 19th centuries and away from “abstact” music. After all, composers don’t want to starve for long and producers want music for their shows so the composers “sell out”. But it is also in the way of theatrical music that it must not “get in the way” of the production or draw attention to itself; in short, theatrical music is prone to being “forgettable”. Such music doesn’t get revived much or only a few “outstanding” pieces get played now. Oh, there were some French symphonists, George Onslow (English ancesty but living and working in 19th c. France) was an ear-opening discovery, but they don’t get the hearing.
    Brings up the question: has the BSO ever done any George Onslow?
    How revolutionary actually is Beethoven?
    B. will end his days a confirmed Austrian Empire patriot/nationalist–with several Archdukes as his clients. Napoleon’s declaring himself Emperor cost himself the dedication of the Eroica. There are different types and grades of Revolution. Political Revolution and Musical Revolution can be different creatures.
    I want to go to bed.

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — January 23, 2016 at 4:48 am

  16. What grotesque nationalistic bigotry. It is also ahistorical claptrap. The English are yet to have a revolution ? Cutting off one king’s head and driving another from his throne are generally regarded as revolutionary acts.

    Comment by SamW — January 23, 2016 at 12:25 pm

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