Relatively little known in the United States, French conductor François-Xavier Roth made his Tanglewood debut this past weekend in consecutive programs, juxtaposing works by Schumann and Brahms. In Europe – where he is currently associated with important ensembles as the general music director of the Gürzenich-Orchester, principal guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and associate artist of the Philhamonie de Paris – Roth is mostly known for his quite innovative programming. He made his name leading Les Siècles – an ensemble he founded in 2003 – whose enthusiastic musicians are able to play during the same performance multiple works using instruments and stylistic details that correspond to the period the respective opuses were conceived.

François-Xavier Roth, Kirill Gerstein and the Boston Symphony Orchestra © Hilary Scott
François-Xavier Roth, Kirill Gerstein and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
© Hilary Scott

It’s not exactly clear how much input Roth had in devising his programs with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but certainly coupling two well-known Romantic masterpieces, by two composers with very deep musical and personal bonds, could hardly be labeled as ground-breaking. That doesn’t mean at all that the renditions where not remarkable, underlying all sorts of links between these works, from the prominent role attributed to the horns in the first bars to a certain “Russian” melancholy whiff in the slow movements to an overall graceful air that one doesn't usually associate with this music.

In an essay written for The New Yorker magazine on the occasion of Radu Lupu’s 70th birthday, Kirill Gerstein commented: “Trying to understand his phrasing, timing, or the effect his bear-like posture at the keyboard has on the sound yields only partial results. The whole is greater than the sum of its ingredients.” Gerstein’s interpretation of Brahms’ Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat major appeared as a true homage to the great Romanian pianist. He avoided emphasizing, as much as possible, various elements of virtuosity. In full accord with his conductor and the BSO, there were few grand statements. It was a performance under the sign of Erato rather than Melpomene; lyric rather than tragic. If Gerstein's piano playing was evoking a Romantic spirit, preceding Brahms, that would have been Chopin's shadow, not Liszt's. Occasionally, he shifted accents or introduced several bars of “impressionistic”, rubato playing. Among several outstanding moments were the beginning of the recapitulation in the first movement and the expansion of both themes in the Scherzo. The conductor placed the violins on one side and the other of the piano, thus allowing the lower strings to occupy the center of the stage and providing the framework for a particular soundscape at the beginning of the Allegro appassionato (when the violins enter only later). The same setting favored the especially intimate encounter between solo cello (an outstandingly lyrical Blaise Déjardin) and piano statements in the superb Andante, possibly inspired by Clara Schumann’s Romanze in the piano concerto composed when she was only 14.

François-Xavier Roth conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra © Hilary Scott
François-Xavier Roth conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra
© Hilary Scott

From where I was seated, I could not see Gerstein's hands on the keyboard, but I was captivated by Roth’s batonless gestures: eloquent, elegant and explosive, precisely indicating entry points and, at the same time, caressing every little detail. He brought forward, in Schumann’s Second Symphony, the composer’s newly acquired interest in Bach’s counterpoint as expressed in the fugato attempt in the first of the two Trios included in the second movement and the evocation of the Musical Offering in the Adagio. He made sure the listeners paid attention to the reappearances of a motto initially announced by the brass in the Sostenuto assai introduction. He underscored the unconventional introduction, by the solo oboe, of a fresh melodic phrase (inspired by Beethoven’s last song from An die ferne Geliebte) towards the end of the Finale. But, more than anything else, Roth highlighted the localized shifts in mood that we associate more with Schumann’s piano works than with his symphonic ones. The allegedly heroic nature of the opening Allegro’s dotted main theme was immediately tempered by a chromatic secondary motif. In the Scherzo, the repeated use of a diminished-seventh chord cut short any sense of exultation that a C Major tonality might have brought.

Unfortunately, the weather was not very cooperative on Saturday night. The performance was affected by humidity, bouts of rain and constant rumblings in the sky. One could feel consoled knowing that nature’s interventions are part of a longstanding Tanglewood tradition.