François-Xavier Roth presided over the London Symphony Orchestra in a programme of works loosely framed by the reigns of two French emperors – Napoleon Bonaparte and Napoleon III. Whether or not this was intentional, it was intriguing to hear Beethoven’s ground-breaking “Eroica” Symphony juxtaposed with two French composers, seemingly with little in common, but each making important contributions to symphonic and concerto repertoire. Under different circumstances Beethoven might have easily eclipsed music by François-Joseph Gossec (1734-1829) and possibly Camille Saint-Saëns, but Roth made a compelling case for each of their works.

François-Xavier Roth
© Kevin Leighton (2019)

Beyond Berlioz, Saint-Saëns and Franck, the 19th-century French symphony has few representatives and the 24 by Gossec (who, like Franck, was also born in Belgium) are virtually unknown. One exception is his Symphonie à 17 parties in F major. Written in 1809, five years after Napoleon crowned himself as Emperor, it’s scored for double woodwind, two horns, strings (double bass and cello as one part) and non obligato trumpets, timpani, hence the title’s numbering. The outer movements have considerable élan, although their rhetoric hint at the work’s functional origins prior to its revision and belated inclusion of a Minuet. Marked by incisive rhythms and emphatic tuttis, Roth drew from the LSO an account that blazed with conviction. That Roth recorded this work last year with Les Siècles underlines his commitment to a rarely performed work distinctive for its woodwind colouring, urbane Larghetto and strenuous fugue inhabiting an otherwise playful Minuetto. With its witty woodwind asides and thrilling crescendos, the closing Allegro molto rounded off a characterful work from a composer who Roth clearly believes merits further investigation.

Like Gossec a century later, Saint-Saëns had an extraordinarily long and productive career that spanned the years between Schumann’s Carnival and Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. Prodigiously gifted and acclaimed as the French Mozart, Saint-Saëns has often been maligned for being too facile, too prolific. Perhaps in a year that marks the centenary of his death, we could agree he has been shamefully neglected. Yet his five piano concertos combine a Gallic clarity and brilliance, elegance rather than tasteless spectacle. His Piano Concerto no. 2 in G minor (completed in just 17 days), neatly balances a romantic impulse with classical restraint. These were the qualities Bertrand Chamayou brought to this work for his LSO debut. Power and athleticism were also conspicuous in the first movement, its grandiose opening (echoes of Bach) despatched with aplomb and leading to playing of crystalline eloquence and thundering articulation, the orchestra unfailingly sensitive collaborators. Scintillation and swagger were fully realised in the Allegro scherzando, its glitter and humour somewhere between Rossini and Mendelssohn, but with an unmistakable French accent. If obsessive ornamentation impairs the Finale, there was much to enjoy in Chamayou’s deft handling of its vertiginous scales as well as Roth’s clarity of purpose even when his enthusiasm occasionally left him airborne.

If Saint-Saëns tore up the rule book of concerto design, then Beethoven surely rewrote the formal template of symphonic thinking in the Eroica and famously scratched out his dedication to Napoleon Bonaparte in 1804. This account of his Third Symphony gripped from the start: its first movement striking for its brisk tempo and clearly defined paragraphs with the development’s pianissimo opening freighted with import. Gravitas and subtlety of expression characterised the Funeral March, where cumulative tensions supported by sharply defined dynamics were ideally shaped with drama to the fore. A fleet-of-foot Scherzo traversing the impish and the rustic (horns frolicking in the Trio) led straight into a characterful Finale, propelled with crispness of articulation, vivid colouration and well-judged tempi; a life-enhancing close to an evening of compelling music-making. 

*****