The Conductor Transforming Period Performance

Think of the “period” or historically informed performance movement, and the mind probably turns to Monteverdi, Bach, Handel. The first ...


Think of the “period” or historically informed performance movement, and the mind probably turns to Monteverdi, Bach, Handel. The first advocates for performances on original instruments — post-World War II insurgents like Nikolaus Harnoncourt — concentrated their initial work on the Baroque and then Classical repertories, the music in which their findings were most audibly different compared with then-standard practices.

It would take until the 1980s for Roy Goodman, Roger Norrington and others to push period performance into Beethoven, before John Eliot Gardiner led the march through Berlioz, Schumann and Brahms in the 1990s.

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

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

There has been Beethoven, yes, accounts of the Third and Fifth symphonies that illustrate the thoughtful interpretive style of a conductor who has proved himself a progressive programmer as the director of the Gürzenich Orchestra in Cologne, Germany, and of that city’s opera company. (He is also a principal guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra.). Roth and Les Siècles have done Berlioz, too, not least a “Symphonie Fantastique” that matches Charles Munch’s for unhinged intensity.

On the surface, Roth’s exploration of the fin de siècle — which also includes a cutting interpretation of Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” with Les Siècles for the Lille Opera from this spring, free to stream until October and due for release on disc after that — might seem to be just another instance of the period movement’s endless obsession with novelty. The movement’s detractors have often described it as merely gimmicky.

It’s true, Les Siècles can produce sounds that amply reprise the shock of the new: the serrated edges of their “Orgie de Brigands” in Berlioz’s “Harold en Italie”; the fluttering airiness of parts of Stravinsky’s “Firebird”; the sultry, almost menacing haze of their “Nuages,” from Debussy’s “Nocturnes.”

But Roth is more than just a provocateur, and he has big dreams for Les Siècles. The composer George Benjamin has asked the group to look into Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, hoping that its trademark transparency might shed new light on crucial, still obscure modernist works. And Roth wants to use the ensemble to perform premieres.

As comfortable in Rameau as it is in Ravel, in Lully as in Ligeti, Les Siècles shows that it has finally become possible for a single orchestra to perform “all the different repertoires on all the appropriate instruments,” as Roth put it in a recent interview. If that is true, the ensemble might well represent, after half a century or more, the final fulfillment of the period movement’s dream.

Here are edited excepts from the conversation with Roth.

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

It’s an old dream. I studied the flute at the Paris Conservatory, and, after that, conducting. When I was a teenager, I read this book by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, “The Musical Dialogue.” Harnoncourt announces that in the future, the modern type of violinist would be someone who could play a Bach sonata on a period instrument in the morning, and a “Sequenza” by Berio on a modern instrument in the afternoon, with the same level of quality and expertise. I thought it would be a dream to have an orchestra like that.

Harnoncourt, of course, never got as far as 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.

When I was a teenager, I had lots of different tastes in music. I was lucky enough to grow up in Paris, hearing all the big premieres by Pierre Boulez with the Ensemble Intercontemporain. And at the same time, I was fascinated by the work of Harnoncourt and John Eliot Gardiner. I didn’t want to choose either one or the other. I loved both.

It was really the purpose of the orchestra, a little bit selfishly, to go with my musical tastes. It was a garage band at the beginning; we literally rehearsed in my house. It was just after my years as an assistant conductor with the London Symphony Orchestra, and I called some friends who were a little bit crazy, like me. There were lots of players with modern instruments, and, on the other side, people coming either from Baroque or Classical instruments. When we started to experience for the first time the Beethoven instruments, and later on the Berlioz and Bizet instruments, it was always for the first time as a collective.

Is putting together an instrument library that covers such a long period of time difficult, or expensive?

Yes and no. Sometimes it’s chance; sometimes it’s on the internet. One of my trumpeters found in Australia a little French trumpet from 1901, and he bought it for, I don’t know, 200 euros [about $240], and restored it. For the more modern period, we are talking mostly about instruments that belonged to our grandfathers, or one generation before. When I was 15 or 16, I thought these instruments were just not as good as the one I had; we wouldn’t use them. We didn’t, in a way, value the quality of these instruments.

You didn’t think they had historical interest yet — that they qualified as “period”?

Exactly. This was a little bit arrogant. We think: Stravinsky and Ravel, it’s already modern music. When we not only restored these instruments — I’m mainly talking about winds, percussion and brass — but started to rehearse 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’s important not only to talk about the period, but also geography. Paris was not at all the same as London or Berlin. When we started to look at the richness of instruments in Paris in 1909, it was fabulous, and nothing to do with the instruments we know today. The size of a trombone in Paris — it looked like a trumpet, it was not at all the big, fat instrument we know today, or the one that used to play 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 these tiny, trombones — my God!

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

We don’t have originals, so we perform on copies of old German instruments from the time of Beethoven. We try to be as close as we can. 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, Let’s go for Austrian instruments from the end of the 19th century. But the premiere of “Titan” was in Budapest, and the second performance was 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 not one truth.

Are the players also doing research into contemporary performance practice? How far do you go in recreating a sound, in other words?

For sure, the common point of these musicians is that they research something, not only the aesthetics but the style, the sound. With Les Siècles it’s more extreme, because I ask the musicians to present programs of Mozart combined with Lachenmann, Debussy with Boulez, Rameau with Ravel. The virtuosity of the players of our time is not to play fantastically fast, but to change instruments, like an actor changing his costume.

But nobody taught them how to play Berlioz instruments. The instrument becomes the teacher. It shows its advantages, its richness, but at a certain point it doesn’t respond anymore; you can’t blow that loud into it. This was the purpose of the orchestra and this 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 periods.

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

I was close to Boulez in 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]. When he was a young musician, he had to deal with things he didn’t like at all. For example, I often conduct his “Le Marteau Sans Maître.” When you listen to the first performance, you hear an old vibraphone with a huge vibrato; you don’t recognize the piece. Pierre would say that the instruments were awful. He would dream that the instruments would change.

So it’s not a question of which year, but more a question of what the composer wanted, or what the composer expected music to sound like.

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