in: Reviews

January 6, 2018

A Percussive and Rip-roaring Night at BSO


Due to inclement weather, BSO’s Thursday postponed performance was rescheduled for Sunday at 5 pm. Friday evening, despite frigid weather, Symphony Hall saw a fine turnout for a young British pianist, Benjamin Grosvenor, matched with a “youthful” French conductor, François-Xavier Roth.

The Étienne Nicolas Méhul Overture to The Amazons not having been included Friday evening made an already fairly short concert even shorter. A rip-roaring performance of the Beethoven Symphony No. 5, following the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 21 in C without intermission, had folks streaming out the doors around 9:30.

While the Grosvenor-BSO Mozart did not bring the near-full hall to its feet, the Roth-BSO Beethoven did. For some reason or another, the piano often appeared “tinny.” Could it have been percussiveness from the prodigious 26-year old?  After the Fifth’s Allegro con brio, a “Phew!” was audible enough to enjoy. An energized Roth had the orchestra going at a feverish clip most likely never heard before by most, if not all, of us.  

All of K. 467 sounded big, the Andante did too. And in this middle movement there was enough respite, relatively speaking. Benjamin Grosvenor’s impeccably controlled touch eschewed bell-like tones, favored by others, for forthrightness, especially in rounding off the phrase’s zenith.

In the outer movements, Grosvenor’s penetrating focus contrasted oddly with François-Xavier Roth’s noticeable actions on the podium.  When not playing, the young pianist’s gaze was upon the orchestra. Balance between the two a finer point of the performance. 

Striking were the driving bass and iridescent treble probes from Grosvenor.  The overcast cadenza posed a departure from the prevailing optimism of the Allegro maestoso. With utmost precision, the Allegro vivace assai motored on shifting classical gears in high performance rondo-finale fashion.

And at concert’s end, after the Beethoven, whose tempos may well qualify for the Guinness Book of Records, it took some doing to reexamine the experience of that stately Mozart.

Wishing I had clocked the famous—and infamous—Fifth’s opening movement, this listener would have then offered here real-time evidence.  As to François-Xavier Roth’s approach, was it radical, adventurous, high-speed orchestral delivery, or just what?

In a welcoming heart-to-heart prior to the start of the concert, William R. Hudgins, Principal Clarinet, affirmed the pleasure and satisfaction from performing the Fifth after so many years and iterations. That had to be all the more evident in Boston Symphony Orchestra’s amazing accomplishment with this Beethoven, play as they did.

François-Xavier Roth conducts BSO and Benjamin Grosvenor (Aram Boghosian photo)

Breathless and in wonder we sat awaiting the Andante con moto. The cellos picked up the theme of this set of variations posing a pronounced melodic contour equal to the tempo, itself picked up. The woodwinds were as fleeting as they were luminous to be savored every note of the way—know that the listener was summoned to her and his toes at every turn. The brass victory processionals finalizing each variation were, instead, sharp-edged fanfares.

But they were beauty-blazing full out in the final Allegro movement where resistance of any kind was overwhelmed with outrageous wonderment. The horns, with their full-bodied declarations, and trumpets’ jazz inspired brilliance were a knock-out. Why was the BSO doing the Fifth again? That question was fully answered!

Did you know, that on Casual Fridays, as Hudgins suggested, that you could follow the concerto and symphony program notes on your cell phone or tablet right there in designated areas in Symphony Hall as the music was being played? With this Fifth, could you—would you? 

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.  He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).


  1. I attended François-Xavier Roth’s Saturday evening performance of Mozart’s 21st piano concerto and Beethoven’s 5th Symphony with the Boston Symphony. Normally I wouldn’t seek out a concert of such standard fare, but I had read glowing reviews of his previous BSO concerts and his recordings and wanted to hear it for myself. I was completely blown away not just by consistently nuanced and frequently unusual interpretive choices, but the brilliant execution of them by the orchestra — which shows his ability to deliver them under the limited rehearsal conditions of guest conducting. Benjamin Grosvenor, the pianist for the concerto, gave a fine polished but mostly conventional performance. But I soon stopped focusing on him, and concentrated on how Roth was finding detail after detail to bring out of the concerto. (Only in the final movement did he start truly listening and responding to Roth, and stop playing for his piano teachers.) And the Beethoven started with a different premise than any other performance, live or recorded, I have heard. As the reviewer noted, the”fate” motive was handled very swiftly at the start, with no pause — as if you were dropping in on an ongoing interior dialogue instead of an attack from some external force. The first movement was so fast (despite taking all the repeats) that it almost becomes a prologue to the 2nd movement — a testimony to nobility and strength that is always present, not a respite from the drama. The ghostly 3rd repeat of the main theme of the scherzo showed that interior, negative force to already be afraid of that strength, and thus ripe for defeat in the 4th movement. And that finale: great control of dynamics and phrasing, combined with fast speeds and a lithe rather than heavy quality (as in the first movement), kept the coda from just pounding the listener to overblown effect at the end — instead it felt like waves of exhilaration. Instead of battling and achieving victory over some force called “fate,” the symphony was about achieving victory over one’s own weaknesses by recognizing one’s strength. That’s the sort of rethinking of a great warhorse that makes a program like that worth attending, even on a night where the temperature was about 5 degrees outside the hall. Roth is now on my very short list of conductors whom I must hear when he comes to town. FYI, Grosvenor fulfilled his potential as an interpreter in an encore, with a wonderfully playful and rippling performance of what I believe was a Chopin etude.

    Comment by Allan Alter — January 7, 2018 at 12:37 pm

  2. Except for a few of the reprises, Roth certainly did take it more ‘and-2-and-ONE’ than most do. As written.

    Comment by david moran — January 7, 2018 at 2:38 pm

  3. According to BSO tweet, the encore played by Grosvenor was: Moszkowski, Etude in A flat Op. 72 no. 11. Always a special treat to hear encores at BSO, thank you BG.

    Comment by Joseph Snodgrass — January 7, 2018 at 3:05 pm

  4. Like David Patterson and Allan Alter, I found this an unusually exciting performance (I went Friday night) and I can’t recall a reading that broke so completely with the prevailing conventions.

    The last few decades of historically informed have offered brisker tempi than older approaches and tried to reproduce (with varying success) period practices (e.g., the crescendo-descendo that Norrington introduced into the final chord of the famous opening). But,
    right from the famous opening, it was as if Roth was reading the piece as if it was a recently discovered manuscript. We are used to hearing the opening measures phrased as two separate groups of four notes (three short, one long); Roth read it as an eight note phrase, with fourth and eighth notes slightly (not not excessively) longer than the preceding three. It was as if he was serving notice, at the very start, that this was not going to be the expected Beethoven Fifth — a gesture that neatly echoed Beethoven’s letting the audiences of his day know, in those opening measures, that they were in for something quite different from what they might be used to.

    I was floored by Roth’s 2016 reading of Petrushka, which served as a reminder of how close this work comes to the world of Le Sacre. On Friday night I was floored again.

    Comment by James Schmidt — January 7, 2018 at 3:27 pm

  5. It was certainly one of the fastest 5ths I’ve heard, but probably not a record; I imagine it was pretty close to neck-and-neck with recordings conducted by John Eliot Gardiner and Jos Van Immerseel, for example. I say this because I am guessing that Roth was engaging in the same radical experiment that those two conductors have undertaken, that of taking Beethoven’s metronome markings seriously. I agree with Mrs. Patterson and Alter that the results were pretty exciting.

    Comment by SamW — January 7, 2018 at 3:27 pm

  6. That should have been Messrs. Patterson and Alter. I didn’t mean to refer to a married woman with the odd surname “Patterson and Alter”.

    Comment by SamW — January 7, 2018 at 6:13 pm

  7. Thanks to David Patterson for the excellent review. Sunday afternoon’s performance was indeed exciting. As on Saturday, we had the special treat of Grosvenor’s encore: a Moszkowski Etude.

    Comment by Michael Raizman — January 7, 2018 at 9:43 pm

  8. @James Schmidt
    >> Roth read it as an eight note phrase, with fourth and eighth notes slightly (not not excessively) longer than the preceding three.

    ? It is completely clearly written: eighths and a half-note, then repeat. Including fermata. The crucial point is to get its breathless uptake quality right from the getgo, meaning it’s never ever the plodding 1-2-3-FOUR but something quite other. A pianist once pointed out to me that for every listener it becomes plain later on, over the course of the movement with the incessant ‘and-2-and-ONE’ hammered-out rhythm, how it was supposed to go at the start, that it’s wild the opening is anomalous almost always.

    Comment by david moran — January 8, 2018 at 1:32 am

  9. @James Schmidt, ah, reread your wording more carefully and get your point; apologies

    Comment by david moran — January 8, 2018 at 1:54 am

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