Two years ago, François-Xavier Roth programmed Stravinsky’s Petrushka with the Boston Symphony. He paid the orchestra the high compliment of deeming it, “the best modern 21st-century French orchestra”  for the colors and clarity it displayed. All Stravinsky’s Diaghilev ballets were premiered by French orchestras with their unique qualities in mind. In the case of The Firebird, French music as well is an audible influence both filtered through his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, and the specific work of Debussy. Roth chose the complete ballet music from 1910 as the linchpin for this week’s program, combining it with Webern’s 1908 Passacaglia for Orchestra and Bartók’s 1924 Piano Concerto no. 1 in a survey of the musical avant-garde at the outset of the modern era.

François-Xavier Roth © Marco Borggreve
François-Xavier Roth
© Marco Borggreve

Webern’s Passacaglia is a transitional piece, marking the end of his studies with Schoenberg and his use of the standard orchestra of the period in a standard manner. At about ten minutes, it is also the longest of his opuses. Like his teacher’s early compositions, it bears little resemblance to what was to come. It is also imbued with the profound and enduring melancholy provoked by the recent death of his mother. A series of 23 variations over an ostinato bass line, it begins and ends slowly, mysteriously and quietly, gradually accelerating and only twice rising above forte before beginning to ebb. Though Roth gave the opening a strolling gait appropriate to this traditional form’s name, the overall sense was more of fluidity, an ocean current which intensified as the range of emotions grew more tempestuous, building climaxes like waves which gradually swell then break on the shoreline.

Serge Koussevitzky and the BSO performed Bartók’s First Piano Concerto with the composer at the keyboard four days after its American première in 1928. It had to wait 53 years before it was programmed again. It remains a challenging piece for the audience and a contrapuntal finger-breaker for the soloist. Bartók tips his hand from the start percussively pairing the piano with the timpani, seated to Roth’s left and visible to the soloist, to open the concerto. Pierre-Laurent Aimard has the strength and stamina to scale the crags and crevasses of this glacial score, carving heavy blocks of gelid, lacerating sound out of his relentlessly percussive part. The second movement is the most lyrical, though not for the piano which is mostly limited to hammering out a tom-tom beat and not for the strings, which remain silent. The woodwinds enter distinctively, one by one, until the entire section joins for the most melodic episode in this aggressively dissonant work, an episode the BSO winds made the most of. Aimard had the score on the music rack, but only turned pages during the final movement, the one which demands the most virtuosity and variety from the soloist, challenging muscle with speed. He blazed through, seconded at every step by the orchestra. Perhaps a little more tonal variety and finesse on his part would have enriched the performance, but on its own terms it was extraordinary.

Roth employed the same seating of the orchestra as last week, one which each of these composers would have expected as much as Mozart and Beethoven. He also placed the offstage trumpets, Wagner tubas, and chimes required by Stravinsky at the back of the second balcony expanding the sense of space, balance, and interplay between sections he created for the ballet. Liberating the orchestra from the pit and the dancers allowed details to emerge which wouldn’t otherwise. Performing the complete score allowed for a sensuous, impressionistic symphonic reading which flowed from scene to scene in a narrative arc which the suites Stravinsky fashioned from The Firebird do not have. Roth built an arc within the overall arc from the colorful Scherzo through the dances within the dance – the Khorovod and those triggered by the Firebird’s spell – cresting to the closing burst of light and pealing bells of the “General Thanksgiving”.

In each of his visits since he debuted with the BSO substituting for an ailing Daniele Gatti in 2014, Roth has programmed a Beethoven symphony and a Stravinsky ballet. Six symphonies remain, but only one more ballet and it’s the big one. See you next year.