The scandalous premiere of The Rite of Spring at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris in May 1913 often overshadows the arrival just two weeks earlier of Debussy's Jeux in the same Ballets Russes season. In many ways, Debussy was being just as radical as Stravinsky, freeing up the concepts of timbre and texture as opposed to the Russian's liberation of rhythm. It's not the first time the two ballet scores have appeared on the same concert programme, but with François-Xavier Roth conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in the intimate surroundings of Munich's Herkulessaal, their pairing this time was always going to be something special.

François-Xavier Roth in rehearsal
© Astrid Ackermann

Jeux's sound world – refined, multi-layered, translucent – plays to Roth's strengths, and the aural magic set in from the diaphanous opening notes of this performance. There was a sensuality to the orchestral sound that suggested that he had taken on board the unashamed eroticism of the original ballet scenario, with its game of tennis providing the setting for a ménage à trois. But there was momentum, too, in the music's persistent waltz-like motion. 

Rhythmic urgency was also at the heart of Roth's Rite, a work that he has explored in detail with his period-instrument orchestra Les Siècles and which here on modern instruments lost none of its revolutionary audacity. The Dance of the Earth that ends Part 1 of the ballet was driven so excitingly and furiously it felt as if the orchestra was in danger of reaching escape velocity. But there was delicacy too, in the score's rare moments of reflection, though it is the power and energy of the sound produced by this wonderful orchestra that will stick in the memory.

François-Xavier Roth, Kirill Gerstein and the Bavarian RSO in rehearsal
© Astrid Ackermann

Rather than picking another work from 1913 to fill out the programme, soloist Kirill Gerstein chose a piano concerto from almost 30 years later, Schoenberg's uncompromising one-movement essay in the medium. But it is a work that also fitted in with the programme's theme in that, rather than timbre or rhythm, it plays with our melodic and harmonic expectations while providing a crutch, as it were, of form and recognisable rhythmic shapes. Gerstein certainly felt the slow-waltz vibes behind the concerto's opening Andante – and there's always room for the almost Brahmsian warmth he brought to many of its gentler phrases, while giving the solo part's more robust writing both clarity and depth of tone. Coupled with the BRSO's equally characterful contribution, this was another treasurable performance, capped by a mellifluously played Debussy étude as Gerstein's encore.

*****