Think of the historically informed “period” or performance movement, and the mind is probably turning to Monteverdi, Bach, Handel. The first advocates of performances on original instruments – post-WWII insurgents such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt – focused their initial work on baroque and then classical repertoires, the music in which their discoveries were most audibly different from practice. usual at the time.
It was not until the 1980s for Roy Goodman, Roger norrington and others to push the period performances to Beethoven, before John Eliot Gardiner led the way through Berlioz, Schumann and Brahms in the 1990s.
Despite these advances, however, “period” has mostly remained synonymous with “beginning.”
Moving forward Francois-Xavier Roth, 49, former Gardiner assistant including the Parisian ensemble Centuries, which he founded in 2003, released a number of period instruments recordings on Harmonia Mundi since 2018, all excellent.
There were Beethoven, yes, stories from the The third and Fifth symphonies that exemplify the thoughtful performing style of a conductor who has proven to be a progressive programmer as the director of the Gürzenich Orchestra in Cologne, Germany, and that city’s opera company . (He is also the Principal Guest Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra.). Roth and Les Siècles made Berlioz, too, not less one “Fantastic Symphony” that corresponds to Charles Munch‘s for the unleashed intensity.
On the surface, Roth’s turn-of-the-century exploration – which also includes a cutting-edge interpretation of Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” with Les Siècles for the Lille Opera starting this spring, free to broadcast until October and is set to be released on disc after that – this might seem like just another example of the period movement’s endless obsession with novelty. Critics of the movement have often described it as purely fanciful.
That’s right, Les Siècles can produce sounds that amply echo the shock of the new: the jagged edges of their “Brigands Orgy“In” Harold in Italy “by Berlioz; the floating lightness parts of Stravinsky’s “Firebird”; the sensual, almost threatening haze of their “Clouds», From Debussy’s« Nocturnes ».
But Roth is more than a provocateur, and he has big dreams for Les Siècles. Composer George Benjamin asked the group to take a look at Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, hoping his brand transparency could shed new light on crucial and still obscure modernist works. And Roth wants to use the set to perform premieres.
Also at ease in Branch as it is in Fraying, in Lully a sin 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 said in a recent interview. If true, the set may well represent, after half a century or more, the final fulfillment of the period movement’s dream.
Here are edited excerpts from the conversation with Roth.
Why did you decide to found Les Siècles? Was he destined to be what he has become?
It’s an old dream. I studied transverse flute at the Paris Conservatory, then conducting. When I was a teenager, I read this book by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, “The musical dialogue”. Harnoncourt announces that in the future the type of modern violinist would be someone who could play a Bach sonata on a period instrument in the morning, and a Berio “Sequenza” on a modern instrument in the afternoon. , with the same level of quality. and know-how. I thought it would be a dream to have an orchestra like this.
Harnoncourt, of course, never went 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 the earlier music to sound contemporary – clear, clean, nimble.
When I was a teenager I had a lot of different tastes in music. I had the chance to grow up in Paris, listening to all of Pierre Boulez’s great creations 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. I loved both.
It was really the goal of the orchestra, a little selfishly, to go with my musical tastes. It was a garage band at first; we literally rehearsed in my house. It was right after my years as an assistant conductor with the London Symphony Orchestra, and I called some crazy friends like myself. There were a lot of players with modern instruments and, on the other side, people coming from either baroque or classical instruments. When we first started experimenting with Beethoven’s instruments, and later the Berlioz and Bizet instruments, it was always for the first time as a collective.
Is building a library of instruments spanning such a long period difficult or expensive?
Yes and no. Sometimes it’s chance; sometimes it’s on the internet. One of my trumpeters found in Australia a small 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 mainly talk 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. We did not, in a way, appreciate the quality of these instruments.
Didn’t you still think they had historical interest – what they called “period”?
Exactly. It was a bit arrogant. We say to ourselves: Stravinsky and Ravel are already modern music. When we not only restored these instruments – I’m talking mainly about winds, percussion and brass – but we started to rehearse Stravinsky and Ravel for the first time, “The Firebird” on gut strings, or ” Daphnis and Chloe ”I can’t describe the shock. You understand why Stravinsky chose this combination of instruments and not another.
It is important to talk not only about the period, but also about the geography. Paris was not at all the same as London or Berlin. When we started looking at the wealth of instruments in Paris in 1909, it was fabulous, and nothing to do with the instruments we know today. About the size of a trombone in Paris – it looked like a trumpet, it was not at all the big, big instrument we know today, nor the one that played in Vienna or Dresden. So when you start the beginning of “The Firebird”, the double basses with pizzicato of gut strings, and then suddenly the trombone chorale, with those tiny trombones – my God!
There are so many choices involved here. When you play Beethoven, like on two of your most recent recordings, do you play on Viennese instruments of his time, or on French?
We don’t have any originals, so we play on copies of old German instruments from Beethoven’s time. We try to be as close as possible. I’m going to 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 one 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 found out that Mahler himself had discovered German clarinets and wanted to bring them to Vienna. So at some point you have to make a decision; there is no one truth.
Do the actors also research the contemporary practice of performance? How far do you go to recreate a sound, in other words?
Of course, what these musicians have in common is that they are looking for something, not just aesthetics but style, sound. With Les Siècles it’s more extreme, 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 is not to play at a fantastic speed, but to change instruments, as an actor changes his costume.
But no one taught them to play Berlioz instruments. The instrument becomes the master. He shows his advantages, his wealth, but at a certain point he no longer responds; you can’t blow so hard in it. That was the orchestra’s goal and it’s a goal for me as a performer, to rehearse the music as if it had been 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 understand 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]. When he was a young musician he had to deal with things he didn’t like at all. For example, I often run his “The masterless hammer. “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 the instruments were awful. He wished the instruments would change.
So it’s not a question of what year, but more a question of what the composer wanted, or what the composer expected the music to sound.