François-Xavier Roth & Les Siècles: making waves in French music

Mark Pullinger Wed 19th June 2019

Following scintillating recordings of La mer and Daphnis et Chloé with his experimental Les Siècles, late last year conductor François-Xavier Roth released an all-Debussy disc featuring seminal works which, as he tells Mark Pullinger, marked a new era in music

François-Xavier Roth & Les Siècles

Les Siècles has been nominated for Gramophone's Orchestra of the Year Award 2019, presented with Apple Music. The Award is decided by public vote and you can vote for them at the Gramophone Awards page. The article below was originally printed in December 2018.

Picture the scene. It’s May 2017, and in Cologne’s Philharmonie the Gürzenich Orchestra has just closed a programme of music inspired by the sea. Conductor François-Xavier Roth takes a microphone and saunters across to a piano … and proceeds to sing Charles Trenet’s La mer as an encore, in a cheeky arrangement by Philipp Matthias Kaufmann which throws in splashes of Debussy’s orchestral seascape.

Roth’s timing was – unsurprisingly for this dapper Frenchman – impeccable. Two days earlier, Emmanuel Macron had fought off the far-right challenge from Marine Le Pen in the French presidential elections, and, as the conductor admits, it was with a huge sense of relief that he wanted to send out ‘a nice, positive signal’ to celebrate. ‘In Cologne, they love French culture – food, songs – so it was my gift to them.’

Just two months later, Roth was created a chevalier of the Légion d’honneur in Macron’s first Bastille Day honours list. It was conferred upon him this January by Françoise Nyssen of the French Ministry of Culture at Paris’s space-age concert hall, the Philharmonie. The presentation followed a concert by his beloved orchestra, Les Siècles. I caught up with Roth during rehearsals for that concert to reflect upon his career and his probing approach to music-making.

Roth is now principal guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, but his relationship with them goes right back to 2000 when he won the Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition – a crucial breakthrough. ‘This was very important for me because it was the beginning, not just because it was the first time I met the LSO and had an opportunity to conduct them, but because it was the first time I had even travelled to London! Can you imagine? I was a young musician arriving at Barbican tube station … it took me hours to find the hall!

‘The competition was very important because suddenly I had confirmation that maybe I could really become a conductor. The management was very supportive in quite an old-fashioned way in not giving me too much, too soon. I didn’t have 10 or 20 concerts, but instead I had the chance to keep learning, to be an assistant conductor, to observe, to shadow Sir Colin Davis and all the guest conductors like Pierre Boulez and Mariss Jansons. It was a great opportunity.’

Roth’s burgeoning career took him to the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (as associate guest conductor), the Liège Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (music director) and the SWR Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden and Freiburg as the orchestra’s final principal conductor before it was controversially merged with the Stuttgart RSO to form the SWR Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart. ‘It was a fight,’ Roth admits, ‘and I wouldn’t accept the decision. I was totally against it. Unfortunately, we didn’t win, but I had some wonderful years with them – we made great music together.’ The partnership yielded a distinguished five-disc set of Strauss tone poems on Hänssler/SWR Music, but Roth decided not to return after the merger because he’d been so against the decision. ‘I had to stop my work with them much too early. It’s a sadness, but that’s life.’

Roth’s new German orchestra, the Gürzenich, has a totally different heritage and culture. ‘Cologne is a very musical city. It’s not so German – in the sense that you are close to Holland, to France, to Belgium. It’s an old musical institution with a great history. Berlioz, Brahms and Mahler all came here.’ Indeed, Mahler premiered his Fifth Symphony with the Gürzenich in 1904, and Roth chose that work for their first disc together, an account David Gutman praised in these pages (3/18) for the freshness of its Scherzo and the ‘hushed, virginal quality’ of the Adagietto, taken almost as slowly as Leonard Bernstein’s famous DG account with the Vienna Philharmonic.

Cologne was also an important destination for the avant-garde, such as Stockhausen and Zimmermann. ‘It’s the orchestra of the city, so Gürzenich is a famous name, a family name, in Cologne. What I like very much is that I can experiment there because I have such a great trust in the orchestra and in the audience. I can explore different repertoires, different combinations, and propose something really ambitious which I think suits the mood of the city. We must be experimental there.’

Yet the orchestra with which Roth has dared to be most experimental is Les Siècles, the ensemble he formed back in 2003. Together they’ve made a huge impact on the classical music world. What were his founding principles for the orchestra’s creation? ‘At the beginning,’ Roth explains, ‘it was more to do with the repertoire – it was about having an orchestra that could change its shape, its style, and confront repertoire from different periods. But I also had in mind that I wanted to achieve the period-instrument aspect very quickly, so we started buying gut strings to test them out and then, progressively, moved on to woodwind and brass.’

And what colours Les Siècles paint! Their oriental-themed programme was my highlight from the 2017 BBC Proms, a delicious travelogue from Saint-Saëns’s Egyptian Piano Concerto No 5 to ballet music from Delibes’s Lakmé and Lalo’s Namouna, all performed with Gallic panache. The programme was Roth’s chapeau to Brits such as Sir Thomas Beecham who championed this sort of repertoire when it was being neglected in France. Lemon-drop piquancy to the oboe, nutty woodwind flavours, cinnamon-infused exotic percussion: it was a feast for the musical gourmet, capped off with a pulsating, orgiastic Bacchanale from Samson et Dalila.

Roth’s programming with Les Siècles is highly inventive. Who can forget their 2013 Prom which took the audience through the history of French dance, from Lully – Roth beating time with a staff (thankfully not sharing Lully’s fate of striking himself on the foot, cause of the gangrene which killed the composer) – through to Stravinsky and an unforgettable account of Le sacre du printemps? In Paris in January, he imaginatively paired Debussy with Boulez’s Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna, the programme preceded by a full gamelan introduction. How important is it for him to have that mix of ‘ancient and modern’?

‘When I started to conduct, I was a little frustrated – as a music lover, as a student and as a concert-goer – that I would hear the avant-garde, or the early Baroque, but only on very rare occasions could you experience these very different kinds of music in the same concert. Here at the Cité de la Musique, before the Philharmonie was built, I heard the Ensemble Intercontemporain with Boulez sharing a programme with Les Arts Florissants and Bill Christie. Still, it was not the same players playing everything – it was two very different specialist groups! The perspectives it gave me were fantastic, though. Why should it be forbidden to have in the same concert musics which may be far apart chronologically, but which perhaps say the same things or try to reach the same goals?’

It is this philosophy that guides Roth. ‘We spend a lot of time as musicians performing music which is already known by audiences; so how is it possible to propose a new perspective – for the listener to experience music they know already from different angles? I’m passionate about programming and it’s what is at the heart of Les Siècles. When we do a programme like the Boulez–Debussy, I imagine it says a lot about how I see Debussy and how I see Boulez. It would have been totally different if we had performed Nocturnes and La mer with a more conservative 20th-century composer. So a certain perspective is given to the audience.’

Roth and Les Siècles have already produced a superb recording of La mer, and they plan to continue their recorded Ravel survey from which the first release – a scintillating Daphnis et Chloé – won the Orchestral category at this year’s Gramophone Awards. Roth also has plans to mark the 150th anniversary of the death of Berlioz, not least regarding the location of the composer’s resting place. ‘Berlioz is still buried in Montmartre and I would love it if for this anniversary he could be moved to the Panthéon. I’m going to start a lobbying campaign!’ And in terms of repertoire, Roth and Les Siècles have just recorded Les nuits d’été (with baritone Stéphane Degout) and Harold en Italie (with viola player Tabea Zimmermann), due for release in January next year. But still he is impatient to explore new territories with this orchestra; his plans include extending the Beethoven in their repertoire and performing works such as the original, five-movement version of Mahler’s First Symphony. Schumann, Mendelssohn and Brahms also beckon, along with the Second Viennese School: ‘With the culture of this orchestra, I think this will be something very very special.’

At the start of this year, Roth’s focus returned to Debussy in the months leading up to the centenary of the composer’s death. At the Barbican, he conducted a three-concert series with the London Symphony Orchestra (in his role as newly appointed principal guest conductor) which garnered critical plaudits. I saw the middle concert of the three, containing Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune, Jeux and Nocturnes, the first two of which were being set down for a 2023 release on LSO Live. And here we both were again, three days later in Paris, where Roth was preparing to perform Nocturnes once more, this time with Les Siècles, destined for release on Harmonia Mundi, where it will be programmed with … Jeux and Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune! Roth’s face creases into a smile and he giggles at the coincidence.

In concert, the biggest difference in Nocturnes came in ‘Sirènes’, the third movement. At the Barbican, Roth had the 60 ladies of the London Symphony Chorus, whose massed ululations, I’m afraid, lacked allure. At the Philharmonie he employed only 16 voices from the excellent Les Cris de Paris, split up and scattered among the orchestra, creating a mesmerising effect.

Faune has been an important work for Roth, a former flautist, since his student days. ‘When I started to study it properly, I was at the Abbaye de Royaumont, close to Paris, where there is a big Debussy archive. There are so many different versions! As a performer, it’s a nightmare to know what Debussy wanted. Faune was a big success at its premiere but he was never happy with the final corrections in the score – he started to change things, to set precise tempi – so it’s difficult to decide what to do, how to conduct. Do you take his first gestures or his final views as an older composer?

‘When you play Faune, you have the feeling that suddenly the space changes in the room – there are no limits any more in the architecture of the venue itself because of the harmonies and the sounds Debussy chooses. It is the beginning of modern music – the use of harmony where tonality is not fixed any more. It’s a prelude, but it’s nothing at all virtuoso or loud to open a concert. It’s subtle, an evocation, suggestive’ – without Mallarmé’s words being prescriptive, I add. ‘Exactly. When you consider what came before or immediately after Faune, it’s not that provocative a piece, but it takes people by the hand to a new era.’

Roth is willing to stretch the silences between phrases by some distance, but his Faune is not unduly languorous. He has conducted three Nijinsky ballets – Faune, Jeux and Le sacre du printemps – with reconstructions of Nijinsky’s choreography, and recognises the tempo traps. ‘Because Faune is such gorgeous music, it has come to be performed slower and slower. Debussy’s indications are that he didn’t want it to be so slow and so heavy – this is not heavy music.’

Jeux received its premiere just a couple of weeks before Le sacre. It’s a ballet that doesn’t get danced much today and a score that doesn’t get played too often in concert either. ‘Selling it’ isn’t easy, admits Roth, who suggests its length is problematic for programmers: ‘Jeux is too long for a prelude to a concert, but too short for a main work. And it’s not music that provokes a big roar at the end – actually, quite the opposite. But when you get into the score, it is one of the most complicated to perform. So put all that together and it doesn’t encourage you!’

Debussy sets a tough challenge for the conductor of Jeux, owing to the work’s myriad tempo changes. ‘There are so many things to digest as performers, such as understanding how the tempo flows and how the rubato is precisely written into the score. Boulez used to say that there is a “fragility” in the tempo of Jeux – which is a very good word, because it is something that is never fixed. Even if it’s a scherzo, the tempo moves a lot.’

However challenging the piece may be, Roth’s performance with Les Siècles at the Royal Festival Hall, London, in November 2016 was miraculous. As I wrote in a review at the time, I was immediately struck by the ‘diaphanous strings and perfumed woodwinds’ which ‘wove in and out the bosky shadows of Debussy’s erotically charged score’. The final string sigh – played as a tennis ball was tossed limply to the stage causing the startled trio to disperse – was also deliciously done.

Roth suggests that, in terms of how the form of music could change, Jeux – even more than Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune – was the big stone to cause ripples in the 20th-century pond. ‘When you talk about Sacre, its form is very old. It’s tableaux,’ he says. ‘With Jeux, it’s a process of transformation which is totally new. Debussy isn’t looking back, this is music that’s constantly evolving. Jeux was an amazing statement of how the possibilities of music could develop.’

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