François-Xavier Roth in Refreshing Revivals of Lalo and Massenet

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner, Lalo, Debussy and Massenet: Edgar Moreau (cello), London Symphony Orchestra/ François-Xavier Roth (conductor), Barbican Hall, Barbican Centre, London, 21.1.2018. (AS)

Wagner – Tannhäuser, Overture
Lalo – Cello Concerto in D minor
Debussy – Première Suite d’Orchestre
Massenet – Le Cid, Ballet Suite

This concert, entitled ‘The Young Debussy’, was designed, the conductor François-Xavier Roth wrote in a programme note, to feature formative influences on the young composer. Like most if not all French musicians of his time, Debussy was bowled over by Wagner; he was fascinated, Roth told us, by novel features in Lalo’s ballet Namouna, and Massenet was ‘an extremely important figure’ when the young man was a student in Paris.

Debussy was undoubtedly a late developer as a composer. Before his first masterpiece, the orchestral L’après-midi d’un faune, completed in 1894 when he was in his early thirties, all his earlier work, though often highly accomplished, bore the influence of Bizet, Delibes, Massenet and other French composers of that time and just before. Even the Petite Suite for two pianos, written as late as 1889, though melodically inventive and skilfully written, is still essentially lightweight in nature.

The programme was centred round the first UK performance of Debussy’s Première Suite d’Orchestre, which dates from 1883-84. The manuscript parts of this work were recently unearthed in a New York Library: the third of its four pieces, ‘Rêve’ was not orchestrated and as part of the reconstruction process this task was undertaken by Philippe Manoury. So much for the background, but what of the music itself? Sadly, but maybe predictably, it was a disappointment. In his early twenties Debussy simply didn’t have the resources or experience to put together a significant work, though his orchestration of three of the pieces was accomplished. The musical invention is commonplace, with all manner of conventional gestures, and one was reminded of Tchaikovsky’s reaction to the composer’s very early piano piece Danse bohème when it was sent to him. ‘Not a single thought is developed to the end, the form is bungled and there is no unity’. And the work is too long for its limited substance. Roth has recorded it with his own group, Les Siècles (review),  and it already features on YouTube: having been aired in public it should now be allowed to exist only in retrievable reference sources.

Lalo’s Cello Concerto, seldom played live, is a very different animal. Here is a delightfully lyrical work, with the cello almost continuously and charmingly in the forefront throughout the three varied movements, the tuneful material skilfully put together. It isn’t perhaps quite on the level of the Symphonie espagnol, the violin concerto that keeps the composer’s name before the public, but it is too good to lapse in obscurity. Edgar Moreau played beautifully throughout, with a lovely tone quality and elegant turns of phrase. Just one aspect of the work jarred: the frequent sharp sforzando chords that sprinkle the orchestral accompaniment, particularly in the first movement, and brought to life only too faithfully by Roth and the orchestra.

The concert had begun with an interesting account of the Tannhäuser Overture, the music kept well on the move, with swift tempi and clear, light orchestral textures, but still with plenty of intensity. It had, appropriately, a very French accent. Not a performance for every day, but effective and interesting nonetheless.

To end the evening we had, praise be, another pretty well forgotten one-time orchestral favourite, the ballet music from Massenet’s Le Cid. Following as it did Debussy’s ineffectual youthful effort, one was struck by the stylish, confident and highly accomplished nature of Massenet’s musical invention, his piquant scoring, and his deliciously seductive rhythms and melodic inspiration. In times gone by Beecham and other conductors would think nothing of juxtaposing high quality lighter fare such as this with, for instance, a Sibelius symphony, to the advantage of both works, but now composers such as Massenet, Gounod and Delibes have been firmly squashed out of concert schedules.

François-Xavier Roth has thankfully bucked this trend in recent times, and obviously relishes the chance to re-present first-rate but un-serious French music to audiences. That he is on the right track was shown by the ovation he received after his performance of the Le Cid music. As the audience members dispersed they mostly looked very contented with what they had just heard, with smiling faces very unusually evident. Will the LSO and other orchestral managements take the hint? Perhaps Mahler and Shostakovich should sit on more of a back seat.

Alan Sanders

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