The Young Debussy
This film records François-Xavier Roth’s first concert as principal guest conductor of the LSO, after some years working together on mostly new music, and it has proved a fine augur of both original, French-accented programming and performances that take nothing for granted.
Without being required to work against their natures, the LSO strings cut back on the vibrato for the cascades of the Tannhäuser Overture, and with the brass dancing their way through the main theme à la Grétry, Roth summons up the Paris Opéra of 1861 where the opera had its revised premiere. Such stylish Wagnerisme sets the scene for Lalo’s Cello Concerto of 1877, four years after the Symphonie espagnole. It receives few outings these days, but the young French cellist Edgar Moreau (b1994) is a more than worthy rival for André Navarra (in a classic account recently reissued by Supraphon, 9/17), setting a similarly challenging pace for the declamatory main theme of the first movement without resorting to the heavy exaggeration of cello lions of yore such as Rostropovich and Tortelier, and backed by exceptionally incisive support from Roth and the LSO. Moreau draws an unfashionably generous weight of tone from his 1711 Tecchler instrument but he gives a delightful lift to the slow movement’s middle section, which finds Lalo at his most Spanish (and most inspired). If the assertive fanfares and fistfuls of notes wear thin before the finale has run its course, no fault be found with Moreau and Roth.
The concert’s main event was the UK premiere of a four-movement orchestral suite by the 21-year-old Debussy, and it seems inevitable that Roth’s only rival on record is himself, directing his Les Siècles ensemble (live on Actes Sud, 9/13). In fact the response of the LSO on the night was more sharply defined than the French ‘period’ band, no less attentive to Debussy’s already well-formed orchestral imagination, warmed by more vibrato all the same, and relatively undisturbed by audience noise. So much here is prescient of later and more familiar music; and yet the nocturnal, Iberian mood of the second-movement ‘Fêtes’ and the erotic ebb and flow of the following ‘Rêve’ are worth savouring on their own terms.
From just a year or two later, Massenet’s Le Cid ballet (1885) indulges in the most unashamedly pictorial Spanishry on the programme, replete with castanets, tambourine and snake-hipped rhythms. Roth has the repertoire of French dance down to a T – I remember a BBC Prom where he directed Rameau with a Lully-style stick banging the floor of the podium – and he builds this six-movement suite towards a concluding ‘Navarraise’ of terrific swagger.
Applause between movements of the Lalo is retained – and so is Roth’s gentle hint to the audience that they should save it for the end – which, in the second half, they do. Pure entertainment: I wish I had been there.