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.
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.