United Kingdom Debussy, Dvořák and Strauss: Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello), London Symphony Orchestra / François-Xavier Roth (conductor), Barbican Hall, Barbican Centre, London, 14.11.2018. (AS)
Debussy – Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Dvořák – Cello Concerto in B minor, Op.104
Strauss – Also sprach Zarathustra, Op.30
Firstly, a word about François-Xavier Roth’s conducting style. He doesn’t use a baton, and rather uses his whole body to conduct all the time, leaning forward and continually bending his knees and going up on his toes. I hadn’t noticed this particularly when I last saw him perform, but on this occasion his not very graceful movements were distracting to this member of the audience, and also to one member of the orchestra at least, to whom I spoke. That said, it’s the results of that conducting style that matter, and the LSO’s corporate execution throughout the evening was of its usually excellent standard, and Roth obtained highly expressive results from his forces.
Debussy’s first mature orchestral work came to life in a magical fashion, with wonderfully elegant fluidity of phrase and beauty of sound. Roth didn’t linger too much in this work, as some conductors do, and it was superbly and flexibly phrased.
Enter the cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, and Roth paved the way for his solo entrance to perfection in the opening orchestral statement, introducing quite marked contrasts of pulse and increasing the tension and the tempo in preparation for that entrance. Queyras’s response was magnificently grand, with broad, commanding sweeps of phrase, and he too indulged in what seemed for the moment at least to be perfectly judged expressive devices. His playing of the second subject was markedly slow in tempo, and it sounded very effective for that.
Expression in the second movement was taken to the limits by soloist and conductor, seemingly working in perfect harmony, and again it all seemed just right at the time. This was no doubt helped by Queyras’s magnificent quality of tone and faultless technique. After an alertly played orchestral introduction to the finale Queyras delivered a robust, but warm, poignantly beautiful account of his solo part. This may seem to be an exaggeration, but he seemed almost to beckon the listener towards him in an open-hearted, friendly fashion.
Not many French conductors have turned much attention to the music of Richard Strauss – only the name of Pierre Monteux comes to mind immediately, though I’m sure there have been others – but Roth clearly feels an affinity with the great German master, since he has made extensive commercial recordings of his music. At once his performance of Also sprach Zarathustra was at a disadvantage. The Barbican Hall was originally built as a conference centre, and there is no part of it in which an organ can be built. The sounds of the computer organ that accompanied the mighty evocation of sunrise that opens the work were pretty tame in comparison with what one has heard in this work from the large-scale instruments that inhabit the Royal Festival Hall and the Royal Albert Hall. But this drawback aside, all else was of the highest class. Roth’s conducting was passionate, dramatic and tender in turn, full of personality and perfectly in style and in balance. If his performance had any French quality it was in the clarity of textures that he drew from the various orchestral sections, particularly from the woodwind. The LSO’s leader Roman Simovic played his solo part with great gusto and expertise, and the performance as a whole was most satisfying. An excellent concert all round.