Thunderous Beethoven and exquisite Gossec with Les Siècles & François-Xavier Roth

When the year turned to 2020, we launched into the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth, with concert calendars full of celebratory events all over the planet. At that time, our biggest upheaval concerned whether or not an iconic composer of LvB’s stature needed to be celebrated with such intensity, given that his music has been omnipresent in the concert halls and on record for ages.

Enter COVID-19 and we found ourselves in a completely different universe, with concert halls closed and everything cancelled for months to come. As it happened, my very last live concert before lockdown featured Beethoven’s largely forgotten almost-masterpiece, the oratorio Christus am Ölberge (1803/1804/1811), performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle. A near-miss of the recreation of Beethoven’s 1808 Academy Concert with Philharmonia and Esa-Pekka Salonen in London was my first musical sacrifice to COVID-19.

Still, many interesting new recordings kept coming during the lockdown months, including the complete Piano Concertos with Stephen Hough, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Hannu Lintu on Hyperion, and the Symhonies 1-3 with Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Adès on Signum, to point out two formidable examples.

Now, some six months later, in a period of reopenings and rekindled hope, Beethoven is very much back on the agenda. Over the past couple of days, the marvellous French conductor François-Xavier Roth and his outstandingly versatile period-instrument ensemble Les Siècles have not only released an absolutely astounding recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony but performed and recorded the Eroica as well.

The new Harmonia Mundi release of Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 (1804-08) was recorded at the Philharmonie de Paris in March 2017, in conjunction with live performances. I remember missing it then, with regret, due schedule conflicts, and listening to the recorded take, my regret has grown ever more deeper, hand in hand with the profound joy of having this performance captured on disc.

While there are some who might think that the market is already more than saturated with all those recordings of the Fifth Symphony made over the period of 107 years following Arthur Nikisch’s first gramophone rendition of the score with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1913, I fondly recall my conversation with conductor Daniel Harding back in 2015, where he pointed out how no number of recordings will ever be enough with a masterpiece, recreated with each, unique performance.

Listening to the thunderous performance Roth and Les Siècles, those wise words came back to me with life-affirming force. Even with all those remarkable performance’s I’ve come across with over the years, none of them prepared me for the sheer earthquake-of-a-performance recorded here.

As always with music, excellence is not measured with simple (or complex) ranking-lists, as fun as they might be. That is not to say that I don’t make them in my head, of course I do. Rather, I’ve brought it up as a disclaimer for not picking a favourite in the course of the following brief analysis.

For the record, let me begin by saying that there has been three defining moments for me regarding to the Fifth Symphony. I first fell in love with the piece upon hearing Herbert von Karajan’s early 1960s recording with the Berlin Philharmonic. A recording I still find commanding in its intensity and astonishing clarity.

Then came the unparalleled discovery of period practice, in the guise of Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s milestone recording with his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique from the early nineties. Under his baton the symphony was turned into this wild embodiment of our consuming human struggle and eventual epiphany. Enhanced by the novelties of period timbres, that recording seemed to venture into a forgotten realm of sound.

And the third key moment arrived last week, with Les Siècles and Roth.

François Xavier Roth conducting Les Siècles.
© Holger Talinski.

A lot has happened in the Beethoven realm since the early days of Gardiner’s Beethoven, let alone of Karajan’s. Nowadays, the printed score of Beethoven’s Fifth looks quite different from those old editions, based on mid-19th century sources.

The pioneering work of Jonathan Del Mar, based on an in-depth research of Beethoven’s autograph and other first-hand sources, has presented us with a whole new insight on the symphony as Beethoven intended it, by correcting the myriad of mistakes and incongruences found in the earlier prints. Del Mar’s extraordinary edition, published by Bärenreiter in 1999 and now widely used, provides the starting point for Roth and Les Siècles as well.

In addition, following Gardiner’s lead, Roth and his team of musicians, many of them appearing in the ranks of ORR as well, dazzlingly emphasize the fascinating two-way street between Beethoven and Paris.

Beethoven’s Fifth and the French Revolution are tied together on so many ways. The struggle towards liberté, egalité, fraternité, the ideals of the Revolution, is manifested by Beethoven’s symphonic scheme, as an arch from oppression to freedom. Beethoven’s music picks up where the revolution dissolved, fulfilling the uprising within the real of music.

On more tangible level, Beethoven was inspired by the revolutionary songs, sung in the streets of Paris. Some of the texts and and actual melodies from the streets found their way into Beethoven’s score, and eventually to our collective psyche.

To complete the circle, Beethoven’s symphonies arrived in Paris in the late 1820s, with performances hitherto unparalleled in preparation and execution. These concerts profoundly shaped the course of the French music, paving the way for Hector Berlioz, whose Symphonie fantastique would thrill the city upon its 1830 premiere. And the rest is history.

Of all the performances I’ve heard either in concert of on record, Roth and Les Siècles are probably the team most intensely conveying the particularity of the revolutionary aspect of Beethoven’s Fifth. Having said that, the performance is by no means a mere soundtrack to a Bastille Day cosplay, but a sounding embodiment of the unstoppable spirit of musical invention, to a cathartic effect.

The four-note opening statement is uttered with relentless force, breathtakingly paced, yet ever immaculately phrased and balanced. Like a thunderbolt, the music flows through its scaffolding with immense steadfastness, as a single, extended breath. Beethoven’s dynamic markings are carefully taken into account to minutiae detail, resulting in a vividly detailed performance.

Beethoven’s obstinate repetitions are always subtly animated, thus fulfilling their key function as emotional chargers in the most resplendent way.

Described as a prayer by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the andante con moto second movement bears empowering sense of collective energy, harvested from each orchestral section. In terms of pacing, Roth’s choice of tempi coincide well with my personal understanding of Beethoven’s markings, yielding to a highly satisfying experience. Combined with riveting dynamic scale and astonishing orchestral colour, who could ask for more!

Les Siècles and Francois-Xavier Roth in performance.
© Jose Albornoz

The scherzo, one of Beethoven’s most extraordinary symphonic movements, is given a roaring performance, filled with nuanced detail, electrified by sonorities fabulously charged with tangible tension. Like Rattle and Salonen, Roth omits the big repeat, unleashing the music in one direst line with his marvellous musicians.

Beethoven’s finale bursts into fully fledged outdoor spirit, as the symphonic ensemble is joined by trombones and piccolo. A long-awaited feast, the music flourishes in resplendent colours, propelled by the rejoicing orchestral apparatus of Les Siècles; a joyous universe to dwell beyond time and space.

Brought to its end by a wondrous rendition of Beethoven’s truly one-of-a-kind coda, this is a performance to be endorsed loud and clear! So fundamentally different from the recent account by Andris Nelsons and Wiener Philharmoniker on DG, Roth and his musicians explore a very different region of the LvB realm, which still contains uncharted territories. 

Although one would be perfectly satisfied with the Beethoven symphony alone, Roth and Les Siècles treat us with the most exciting coupling imaginable, François-Joseph Gossec’s Symphonie à dix-sept parties, RH64 (1807/1809).

During his remarkably long years, Gossec witnessed a huge transformation of the musical world, from the heydays of Rameau all the way Berlioz.

Among his fascinatingly diverse output, the Symphonie is probably his best-known work. It is based on a three-part overture written for an unrealized opera project in the 1780s, thoroughly reworked, with minuet added in 1807-09, or so, thus making the Symphonie a contemporary of Beethoven’s Fifth.

More akin to the classical symphony of Haydn and especially Mozart, Gossec’s score is nevertheless an astonishingly original creation, unmistakably French in its very essence.

In terms of performance practice, while there have been two published editions of Gossec’s Symphonie available, neither of these have been based on an in-depth study of the autograph. This has been a huge deficit, given the exceptionally ambiguous nature of Gossec’s manuscript.

Filled with contradicting alternations, amendments and omissions, the autograph score was tailored over and over again by the composer for each performance, without clear indication for preferred solutions.

Thus all modern performances so far have been based on editions far-guessing Gossecs original. The recording by Roth and Les Siècles is the first to use the new critical edition by Louis Castelain and published  by Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles  in 2018. 

The symphony opens with a maestoso introduction, leading to the main allegro. The rapid string passages, airy winds and resounding trumpets, with timpani, are woven together into resplendent orchestral textures, in the manner of a spirited overture. 

Roth and Les Siècles embrace Gossec’s writing with upbeat vigour, setting the symphony admirably in motion. 

Gracious andante ensues, lead by strings, with contrasting tutti bursts. Not a mere interlude, the second movement is performed with finesse by the wonderful musicians of Les Siècles. 

The Menuet, composed in 1809, two years after the premiere of the three-movement version, contains some of the most intriguing passages of the entire symphony. Cast as an intemse fugue, with enchanting trio middle section, the movement is a case in point of Gossec’s craft of counterpoint. Dazzlingly performed, the Menuet is a veritable highlight. 

Rounding off with a rousing allegro molto, the symphony closes with sonic festivity for full orchestra. A powerhouse performance, the Finale provides a perfect final track for an astonishing disc. 

Les Siècles and François-Xavier Roth in rehearsal.
© Holger Talinski

Recorded at La Seine Musicale, Boulogne-Billancourt in February 2019, the Gossec Symphonie is an exquisite discovery. As a whole the new Harmonia Mundi album succeds in reminding us why recording Beethoven still matters as much as ever, as well as stressing the importance of widening our repertoire. 

Les Siècles

François-Xavier Roth, conductor

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony in C minor, Op. 67 (1804-08)

François-Joseph Gossec: Symphonie à dix-sept parties, RH64 (1807-09)

Recorded at Philharmonie de Paris, March 2017 (Beethoven) and La Seine Musicale, Boulogne-Billancourt, February 2019 (Gossec)

Harmonia Mundi HMM 902423 (2020), 1 CD

© Jari Kallio

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