Ear-stretching music-making across three different centuries from Les Siècles and François-Xavier Roth

GermanyGermany Musikfest Berlin [10] – Rameau, Lachenmann, and Berlioz: Tabea Zimmermann (viola), Les Siècles / François-Xavier Roth (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 15.9.2019. (MB)

Tabea Zimmermann (viola), François-Xavier Roth (conductor) & Les Siècles
© Monika Karczmarczyk

Rameau – Les Indes Galantes: Suite

Lachenmann – Mouvement (– vor der Erstarrung)

Berlioz – Harold en Italie, Op.16

Charles Ives’s father famously insisted that his son stretch his ears. It was partly in that spirit that I went to this concert from the French period-instrument orchestra, Les Siècles, and its founder, François-Xavier Roth. Hand on heart, I remain a sceptic, though certainly not an opponent, when it comes to period instruments. I reacted very strongly against them, or rather against the underlying ideologies of those preaching their use, when coming of musical age. No one was successfully going to tell this teenager that he could not play Bach – or Handel, or Rameau, or Byrd… – on the piano; no one likewise was going to create anything other than an enemy by telling him the Bach of Klemperer or Furtwängler or, God help us, even Karl Richter was ‘incorrect’, or as Gustav Leonhardt put it in the case of Furtwängler, ‘disgusting’. (To be fair, ‘disgusting’ at least shows some emotional engagement; the idea of a performance being ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ is considerably worse.) However, not everyone is like that, especially today; many ‘period’ musicians indeed never were. Partly through curiosity, partly through friendship with many musicians with varying degrees of commitment to such music-making, and partly through re-examination of my own prejudices and that imperative to stretch my ears, I have latterly shown greater interest and sympathy.

When it comes, say, to seventeenth-century music, I frankly have little choice, if I ever want to hear that music performed live. With the eighteenth-century, opportunities to hear its music on modern instruments vary according to repertoire and instrument: pianists are clearly never going to give up Bach, yet how often do we hear a symphony or even chamber orchestra perform a Handel oratorio that is not Messiah, let alone a Rameau opera? The nineteenth century is another matter again; I have never felt any particular need here, but curiosity led me here to give Berlioz on instruments of the period. So too did the ethos of the orchestra in question: that is, playing each piece, as close as possible, on the instruments of its time, thus affording a contrast between instruments of the mid-eighteenth, mid-nineteenth, and the late twentieth centuries. So too did the programme – how often, if ever, have Rameau, Lachenmann, and Berlioz appeared together like this? – and the conductor, whose work I have long admired. Why mention all of this? I hope that is not simply self-absorption, but also to try to explain what will perhaps be an unusually personal response. My aim is certainly not to dissuade musicians from performing and listeners from listening to Berlioz on period instruments – why on earth should I wish to do that? – but to describe and also to reflect a little on my experience. By all means call me an antediluvian, if it helps – whilst also acknowledging the ‘historicist’ irony that may entail.

First, however, Rameau, and a suite from Les Indes galantes (instruments of 1750, A=415 Hz). As it happens, I had actually heard another suite from the same opera on modern instruments (LSO/Rattle) earlier this year. I had also, once before, heard Roth conduct Rameau dances, albeit from Dardanus, with a modern orchestra (the BBC NOW), at the Proms. If my prejudices may lie in that direction, I am not at all sure that this was not the best performance of the three. It certainly left me in no doubt that I was happy to listen to this music on instruments of any period, which would doubtless have surprised my younger self. Roth and his players, mostly standing with obvious exceptions, offered an introduction, the ‘Entrée de la suite d’Hébée’, as enticing and in its way as fantastical as anything in Berlioz: an array of percussion, responded to by light, lithe, yet far from inexpressive or indeed vibrato-less playing. It set an infectious precedent, to which subsequent dances fully lived up. Two rigaudons (‘pour les Matelots provençaux et Matelotes provençales’) each offered expressive lilt and meaningful contrast, both with what had come and with each other. Here and in the pair of tambourins (also for those Provencal sailors) one could pretty much see the dancers in one’s mind’s eyes, fully alert to the dramatic possibilities of the dance’s intensification on repetition (and dynamic variation). Two numbers in common with Rattle’s selection, music for the ‘savages’ and the great chaconne, brought the suite to a memorable conclusion, the latter’s sequential sense of drama firmly founded in rhythm and harmony. Indeed, it was Raymond Leppard, rather than any period-instrument conductor, who came to mind for me. Not that these instruments lacked their own character and colour, in many respects delightful, but those were not ends in themselves.

Lachenmann’s Mouvement ( – vor der Erstarrung) for ensemble dates from almost two-and-a-half centuries after Rameau’s opera (1982-4, as opposed to 1735). It was played on modern instruments, or, as the programme had it, ‘instruments from the year 1980’, tuning at A=442. This was at least as committed a performance, not only revealing something akin to a sonic palimpsest, but also revelling in the drama of effort in music-making, as well as its reward, by players truly in sovereign command of their instruments. Webern and Nono, as in the Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied heard that morning, were present guests at the feast, yet in no sense could any of the music have been said to sound like theirs; rather, their methods, or memories thereof, helped us – or at least me – find a way in. Extreme ‘expressivity’ – I am not sure that that is quite the right word – of twin precision and intensity bade, even insisted, that one listen, and listen with ears both old and new: an idea not without implications for such an orchestra and such a programme. I could even have sworn I heard a Rameau rhythm echoed at one point: a coincidence at best, yet a pleasing one. Lachenmann’s music was played with all the skill and understanding of a dedicated new music ensemble, but does this music, the best of forty years all, still qualify as ‘new music’? Does it matter? Eruptions as powerful as those in Mahler (or Webern), whispered confidences as hyper-expressive as those of Nono, riots of wind and percussion to rival Messiaen’s: those and many other aspects, moments, of death, yet also surely in some sense of life, offered a world-kaleidoscope different from Rameau’s, yet one which could surely be heard with profit in succession to it. A performance exhilarating in its aggression had me ask whether my ears would ever be quite the same again, and why on earth I should wish them to be.

Finally, then, Berlioz, and Harold en Italie (instruments from 1850, A=438), for which the orchestra was joined by Tabea Zimmermann. I learned much from the performance, yet emerged from it less convinced. That may simply, or principally, be more a matter of my resistance; perhaps I was hearing it not dissimilarly from the way some notably dissatisfied members of the audience appeared to have heard Lachenmann. Perhaps that was no bad thing at all. Certainly the darker, less resonant string tone with which the first movement opened, had its own potentialities. It was woodwind blend, or lack thereof, both within the section and with the strings, that troubled me more. That will doubtless have been part of the attraction for many, but I found it had me listen more to the instruments, less to what they played. On her entry, Zimmermann proved unfussy yet expressive; so too was the harpist with whom she duetted. (The idea of placing the harp at the front of the stage, almost as a second soloist, offered a definite advantage here.) As time went on, though, Zimmermann proved surprisingly wayward, not just of mood, but of tuning, a problem far from restricted to this movement. Roth’s basic tempo was faster than usual, but it worked well, and was far from inflexible. If a relative thinness of orchestral tone contrasted greatly with Roméo et Juliette from the Berlin Philharmonic just two nights previously, stretching my ears was always intended as part of the exercise.

For the second movement, I was gain struck by the difference in balance and blend. The mood was very different, too, from any performance I could recall: less solemn, more a motley crew of pilgrims. Why not? Again, it made me listen, and there was something quite Catholic, even if renegade Catholic, to the conception, which fitted well. The mountaineer serenading his beloved in the third movement benefited from splendidly rustic sound, period woodwind here coming into its own (for me, at any rate), in what proved another swift account. There was plenty of nervous energy to the finale, whose darker colours and moods came off best, Roth handling its many twists and turns with typical skill and conviction. There were some pretty wild sounds, all in all: many will have found them exciting; alas, they soon became rather wearing for me. I suspect they would have done so still more on repetition. As an encore, the ‘Marche hongroise’ from La damnation de Faust proved infinitely more colourful and involving than it had during a dreary trudge on modern instruments through the entire work at Glyndebourne this summer with Robin Ticciati. Swings and roundabouts, then; I had at any rate stretched my ears and been made to think.

Mark Berry

Leave a Comment