Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 21, the “Elvira Madigan”? Again? Beethoven’s Fifth? A fifth of bourbon would be more welcome in this sub-zero weather. Been there; heard them – often. An overture from an obscure opera by an equally obscure composer? Not enough of a hook to venture out into the arctic cold and risk frostbite. These calculations might have figured into many concertgoers’ decision-making as they considered attending the Boston Symphony’s first program of 2018 Saturday night at the height of a record-breaking cold spell. Toss the presence of François-Xavier Roth into the balance, however, and the decision would have been easy: break out the thermal underwear and the ear muffs. When he makes his yearly visit to Symphony Hall, routine is banished, the conventional has no place, and the familiar sounds fresh.

François-Xavier Roth and Benjamin Grosvenor © Aram Boghosian
François-Xavier Roth and Benjamin Grosvenor
© Aram Boghosian

If tenors hadn’t favored “Champs paternels” from his opera, Joseph, the name Étienne-Nicolas Méhul would be less familiar than it is outside of France. The Overture to his 1811 opera, Les Amazones ou la fondation de Thèbes, though spirited and melodic, would hardly add to his renown. Workmanlike with some flashes of originality, it received a stately and energetic performance from Roth and benefited, as did the rest of the program, from the seating he adopted: first and second violins divided, cellos next to the first violins at the left center with the double basses behind them, woodwinds in the center, violas next to the second violins, and brass and percussion against the back wall. Throughout the evening, this seating yielded a light texture with the counterpoint and interaction of various voices clear and distinct, allowing Roth to draw out details not often heard.

Benjamin Grosvenor, making his debut with the orchestra, brought dazzling technique, a supple, controlled touch, a strong left hand and cool elegance to Mozart’s concerto. His entrance, after the flute, oboe, and bassoon hijack the pause where the soloist would usually come in, seemed casual, as if the piano had wandered in to someone else’s party. After a flurry of scales and a strong, steady trill, he joined and eventually dominated the festivities. Since Mozart left no cadenzas for this concerto, Grosvenor used those composed by French pianist, Robert Casadesus, which added an unusual measure of gravity to the mix. The famous Andante was a lesson in cantabile playing pillowed by Roth’s accompaniment and taking on the quality of a nocturne in its timbre. Fusillades of virtuosity propelled the sparkling final movement to its conclusion. Moszkowski’s Étude in A flat Op.72 no. 11 provided an impish encore with Grosvenor changing both his touch and tone to pour out arpeggios like cascading droplets.

But the highlight was Roth’s fierce, rousing, brash performance of Beethoven’s Fifth. In an interview, Roth referred to the BSO as a “chameleon” able to adapt to any style. Still, what they were called on to do here – jettison all precedent and tradition and play one of the symphonic repertoire’s warhorses in a style and interpretation alien to modern instrument ensembles – was daunting. In essence, Roth asked them to play like a period instrument group. To facilitate the transformation, he brought his own parts. Articulation, acute accents, balance and phrasing would be crucial since Roth adopted Beethoven’s tempo markings without alteration. Despite observing all repeats, this was the fastest Fifth anyone in Symphony Hall was likely to hear.

Roth’s concept was evident at the outset from the way he handled the four-note, short-short-short-long motif. Traditionally, this so-called “fate motif” is played deliberately with great weight and the fourth, long note held, followed by a pause then a repeat. Instead of two distinct four-note episodes, Roth combined them into one quicksilver eight-note passage played lightly and con brio with only the flicker of a hold on the fourth and eighth note in the series. Nothing in this symphony was going to sound the same. To that end, Roth sculpted phrases with his hands, bouncing on the balls of his feet and swaying from the shoulders in more animated passages. At times, his fingers seemed to claw the sound out of the air. He escalated the tension until the closing Allegro erupted in a tumultuous and cathartic wild celebration. The performance was a revelation, not only as far as Beethoven was concerned but also of the orchestra’s versatility and remarkable musicianship.

Roth is back next week with a program of Webern, Bartók and Stravinsky. Temperatures will be in the fifties. You have no excuse.

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