François-Xavier Roth’s repertoire is certainly broad. Founder of period-instrument group Les Siècles, his interests span from the early French repertoire (conductor’s staff and all) through to the 20th century, having performed The Rite of Spring at the 2013 Proms on period instruments. As if that weren’t enough, after Prom 36, he turned from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, quelled the applause, and offered a spoken tribute to the nonagenarian Pierre Boulez, citing his huge influence on the present musical landscape, which would be unimaginable without this truly towering figure.

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

Although we only heard one piece by Boulez at the beginning of the evening, his shadow loomed large throughout, somewhat too often to the detriment of other composers’ voices. Roth’s immaculate and unforgiving attention to detail made for a mind-expanding, coruscating Figures – Doubles – Prismes, but in Ravel’s darkly sardonic Piano Concerto for the Left Hand and the youthful vivacity of Stravinsky’s Firebird, heard here in its full original version, character tended to feel rather lost beneath a sea of intricacies, beautiful though they often were.

It is rare indeed to hear a performance of something unapologetically modern, uncompromising, and aggressive as Boulez’s Figures-Doubles-Prismes that makes every note sound organic, even logical, in its relationship to the surroundings. Inspired by Stockhausen’s Gruppen, Boulez divides the orchestra into three groups, though Figures only requires a single conductor and platform. The work proceeds much as the title suggests, with an initial presentation of ideas (Figures) cascading through the orchestras into variations (doubles) and kaleidoscopic reimaginings (prismes). Much of the work’s interest comes in the opposition of colours and timbres; the BBCSO and Roth balanced these exquisitely, the opening’s chiaroscuro never so extreme as to obscure Boulez’s highly angular melodic ideas.

Clarity of texture is essential to making this music work, and it was magical to hear Stephen Bryant’s solos emerge from the churning waters of Boulez’s counterpoint. Dynamics were never mannered, and the performance never felt micro-managed; solos materialised from a texture that remained at all times miraculously open, every line, no matter how complex, always clearly audible, and the eerie silences that break up the opening were heart-stopping. Coming to the close, the monstrous rush upwards that brings the whole orchestra with it comes to an excruciatingly pregnant pause; this final beguiling ambiguity was brought off perfectly by the massed BBCSO and Roth.

Towering at the other end of the programme, the full Firebird ballet score has been played at the Proms every year since 2008. Boulez has talked of seeing “the youth of a genius” in this music, and I think this underlines the problem with Roth’s reading: this sounded like someone keen to emphasise how the music related to Stravinsky’s later, more personal style(s), rather than giving the music the heft and fantasy it needs. In practice, this meant giving a lot of weight to the details, counterpoint, and articulation; the finale was punchy and vigorous rather than grand, the dissonant brass chorale well-balanced but unimpressive.

There were moments this detailed approach worked; the lush strings in the Lullaby balanced well with the obsessive repetitions of the clarinet; Kastchei’s reawakening was hauntingly stygian, and there were wonderful solos from oboist Richard Simpson and Graham Sheen’s “Lullaby” had a wide, plangent vibrato. However, the “Infernal Dance”, though energetic, lacked a little in string lustre, and this restraint, though admirable, often took some of the sheen off Stravinsky’s most glittering work.

Between these two monoliths were Boulez’s orchestration of a short curio by Ravel, Frontispiece, and the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, with Marc-André Hamelin. Frontispiece, originally for two pianos and five hands, is harmonically indistinct, melodically complex, and all of two minutes long. Boulez’s orchestration sets it to kaleidoscopic colours (with some tuned percussion just to remind us of his presence), but it’s difficult to see this as anything but a musical enigma in the vein of Satie.

Marc-André Hamelin’s first entry in the concerto was a little indistinct, with a few more wrong notes and a rather thinner sound than one is used to with this most distinguished musician. However, come the impish march, he was off; with astounding tonal control, he delivered first humour and then genuine pathos in the final great cadenza, the most hair-raising technical challenges dispatched with the minimum of fuss; his tonal mastery was only confirmed by the encore, Debussy’s resplendent Reflets dans l’eau. However, the orchestra’s contribution was disappointing by comparison. The opening murmurs in the basses were all too clear rather than atmospheric, and the first great tutti was a little staid and lacking in phrasing. All too many details once again; for Boulez it paid healthy dividends, but for much of the other music in this programme it left me feeling a little cold.