The performance of the conductor transformation time



Think of the “period” or the historically informed performance movement and your thoughts will likely turn to Monteverdi, Bach, Handel. The first proponents of performance on original instruments – post-WWII insurgents such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt – focused their initial work on the baroque and then on the classical repertoire, music, in which their results differed most clearly from standard practice of the time.

It was not until the 1980s for Roy Goodman, Roger Norrington and other Beethoven to encounter historical performances before John Eliot Gardiner led the march through Berlioz, Schumann and Brahms in the 1990s.

Despite these advances, “period” has mostly remained a synonym for “early”.

Step forward François-Xavier Roth, 49, former assistant to Gardiner, whose Parisian ensemble Les Siècles, which he founded in 2003, has released a series of recordings of period instruments for Harmonia Mundi since 2018, all of them honored.

There were Beethoven, yes, reports on the 3rd and 5th symphonies that illustrate the thoughtful style of interpretation of a conductor who, as director of the Gürzenich Orchestra in Cologne and the opera company there, has proven to be a progressive programmer. (He is also Principal Guest Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra.). Roth and Les Siècles have also made Berlioz, not least a “Symphonie Fantastique”, which equals that of Charles Munch in terms of immense intensity.

On the face of it, Roth’s exploration of the fin de siècle – which also includes a cutting rendition of Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” with Les Siècles for the Lille Opera starting this spring, to be freely streamed through October and then released on CD – only seems to be to be yet another example of the contemporary movement’s endless obsession with novelty. The movement’s critics have often described it as a mere gimmick.

True, Les Siècles can produce sounds that amply repeat the shock of the new: the jagged edges of their “Orgie de Brigands” in Berlioz’s “Harold en Italie”; the fluttering lightness of parts of Stravinsky’s “Firebird”; the sultry, almost threatening haze of their “Nuages” from Debussy’s “Nocturnes”.

But Roth is more than just a provocateur and has big dreams for Les Siècles. The composer George Benjamin asked the group to examine Schönberg, Webern and Berg in the hope that their characteristic transparency could shed new light on important, still obscure works of modernism. And Roth wants to use the ensemble for world premieres.

As comfortably as in Ravel, in Lully as in Ligeti, Les Siècles shows that it is finally possible for a single orchestra to perform “all the different repertoires on all suitable instruments”, as Roth did in a recently published interview. If that’s true, after half a century or more, the ensemble could represent the ultimate fulfillment of the dream of the era.

Exceptions from the conversation with Roth are processed here.

Why did you decide to found Les Siècles? Was it intended to be what it was?

It’s an old dream. I studied flute at the Paris Conservatory and then conducting. As a teenager I read this book by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, “The musical dialogue”. Harnoncourt announces that the modern type of violinist will in the future be someone who can play a Bach sonata in the morning on a historical instrument and in the afternoon a Berio “Sequence” on a modern instrument with the same quality and expertise. I thought it would be a dream to have an orchestra like this.

Of course, Harnoncourt never got to Berio. His interest in early music was a symptom of the Problems he saw with composition after World War II; Instead, he wanted earlier music to sound contemporary – clear, clean, agile.

As a teenager, I had many different tastes in music. I was fortunate enough to grow up in Paris and hear all the great world premieres by Pierre Boulez with the Ensemble Intercontemporain. At the same time, I was fascinated by the work of Harnoncourt and John Eliot Gardiner. I didn’t want to choose one or the other. I loved both.

It was really the orchestra’s purpose to be a little selfish to suit my musical tastes. It was a garage band in the beginning; we literally rehearsed in my house. It was just after my years as assistant conductor with the London Symphony Orchestra, and I called some friends who were a little crazy, like me. There were many players with modern instruments and on the other hand people who came from either baroque or classical instruments. When we first experienced the Beethoven instruments and later the Berlioz and Bizet instruments, it was always the first time as a collective.

Is it difficult or expensive to compile an instrument library that covers such a long period of time?

Yes and no. Sometimes it’s a coincidence; sometimes it’s on the internet. One of my trumpeters found a small French trumpet from 1901 in Australia and bought it for, I don’t know, 200 euros [about $240], and restored it. In recent times we are mostly talking about instruments that belonged to our grandfathers or a generation before. When I was 15 or 16 I thought these instruments just weren’t as good as the one I had; we wouldn’t use them. In some ways we did not appreciate the quality of these instruments.

You thought they had no historical interest – that they qualified as a “period”?

Exactly. That was a little arrogant. We think: Stravinsky and Ravel, that’s modern music. When we not only restored these instruments – I’m mainly talking about winds, percussion and brass – but also rehearsed Stravinsky and Ravel for the first time, “The Firebird” on gut strings or “Daphnis et Chloé”, I can t describe the shock. You understand why Stravinsky chose this combination of instruments and not another.

It is important to talk about geography as well as time. Paris was not the same as London or Berlin. When we started looking at the wealth of instruments in Paris in 1909, it was fabulous and had nothing to do with the instruments we know today. As big as a trombone in Paris – it looked like a trumpet, it was by no means the big, fat instrument that we know today or that used to be played in Vienna or Dresden. So when you start the beginning of “The Firebird”, the double basses with gut string pizzicato and then suddenly the chorale of the trombones, with those tiny trombones – my God!

There are so many choices here. When you play Beethoven, as on two of your last recordings, do you play Viennese instruments from his time or French ones?

Since we don’t have any originals, we play on copies of old German instruments from Beethoven’s time. We try to be as close as possible. I’ll give you an example. I was contacted because there was a new edition of “Titan”, the first version of Mahler’s First Symphony. Mahler was very active in Vienna, so you could say: Off to Austrian instruments from the end of the 19th century. But the world premiere of “Titan” was in Budapest, the second performance in Hamburg. Then we discovered that Mahler himself discovered German clarinets and wanted to bring them to Vienna. So at some point you have to make a decision; there is no such thing as a truth.

Do the players also research contemporary performance practice? In other words, how far do you go in recreating a sound?

What these musicians have in common is that they explore something, not just aesthetics, but also style and sound. It’s more extreme with Les Siècles because I ask the musicians to present programs by Mozart combined with Lachenmann, Debussy with Boulez, Rameau with Ravel. The virtuosity of the players of our time does not consist in playing fantastically fast, but in changing instruments like an actor changes his costume.

But nobody taught them how to play Berlioz instruments. The instrument becomes a teacher. It shows its advantages, its wealth, but at some point it stops responding; you can’t blow in so loudly. That was the purpose of the orchestra and that is a goal for me as a performer to rehearse the music as if it was written yesterday. One of my mottos is that I love contemporary music from all eras.

So at what point in history do you jump to modern instruments as we envision them? Is it with Boulez? Earlier? Later?

I was close to Boulez for the last five years of his life because I was in Baden-Baden [as the music director of the SWR Symphony Orchestra Baden Baden und Freiburg]. As a young musician, he had to deal with things that he didn’t like at all. For example, I often conduct his “Le Marteau Sans Maître”. At the premiere you can hear an old vibraphone with a huge vibrato; You don’t recognize the piece. Pierre would say the instruments were terrible. He would dream that the instruments would change.

So it’s not about the year, but more about what the composer wanted or how the composer music should sound.


Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.