The biennial Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition is just a week away. Winners have the opportunity to become assistant conductor with the London Symphony Orchestra for up to a year. Former winner François-Xavier Roth shadowed the great Sir Colin Davis. Eighteen years on, the sorcerer’s apprentice – now dubbed “Special FX” – is the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor, returning for another concert exploring the roots of musical modernism. Its three works were composed within two years, yet the gulf between the veiled gauze of Debussy’s Faune, Dvořák's folksy Cello Concerto and the sonic glare of Strauss’ sunrise in Also sprach Zarathustra is vast.

François-Xavier Roth © Holger Talinski
François-Xavier Roth
© Holger Talinski

Everything about Roth is dapper, from his lounge suit to his kiss on the hand for co-leader Clare Duckworth. Batonless, he bounces on the podium, moulding the music between his fingers as if stretching dough. The Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune is Roth’s calling card; indeed, it opened his all-Debussy programme with the LSO in January. In a reading finding a balance between moments of sultry heat and aloof coolness, the conductor kept the strings as diaphanous as possible to permit the star woodwinds to shine through. The flute has the key solo in Faune and Gareth Davies was as beguiling as you’d wish for, but others made fine contributions, particularly Chris Richards’ exquisite clarinet diminuendo and Marc Lachat’s sinewy oboe.

Dvořák had long doubted the cello’s ability as a concerto solo instrument. Early in his career, he abandoned a first attempt, but hearing Victor Herbert’s Second Cello Concerto during his time as Director of the National Conservatory in New York, he was persuaded to have another go. The Cello Concerto in B minor was composed around the same time as Debussy’s Faune, but is rooted in an earthy Czech homeland. Roth, with minute attention to dynamics in the tutti introduction, emphasised Dvořák’s robust orchestration which was occasionally a touch bombastic for the eloquence of our soloist.

Jean-Guihen Queyras’ elegant tone was reminiscent of the aristocratic Pierre Fournier: lean and smooth, not overly demonstrative. He easily fell into a reverie in the cello’s touching soliloquies, introspective especially in the Adagio, ma non troppo middle movement. He found a soulmate in leader Roman Simovic, their exchanges in the finale having the quality of an easy conversation between old friends. Queyras really made Dvořák sing.

The highlight of the evening came with a passionate reading of Also sprach Zarathustra. Roth has form here, having recorded all the Strauss tone poems with the SWR Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden and Freiburg before its controversial merger. He made cogent sense of what can, in some hands, be a rambling work, composed in 1896, inspired by Nietzsche's philosophical novel. From the very long, tummy-rumbling organ pedal, pierced by Philip Cobb’s trumpet, this sunrise took on a fiery, Mediterranean quality before scrabbling double basses plunged us into primeval waters.

Roth, airborne more than once, set an urgent pace, bending double as bassoons coiled and slithered. Moments of exuberance included the glorious LSO horns in full cry in “Of the Great Longing” and plenty of glockenspiel and triangle bling in “The Convalescent”. Simovic spread Mitteleuropean charm over his Tanzlied solos, a spun sugar topping against buoyant double bass pizzicatos. Who knew Nietzsche could be such fun?

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