We regret to announce that the planned discussion with the conductor and soloist of the evening will not take place due to time constraints. For visitors of the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln concert on June 1, 2022 in the Municipal House, we are preparing a discussion with conductor François-Xavier Roth and violist Tabea Zimmermann from 6.30 pm in the Rieger Lounge of the Municipal House.
„Les Siècles think as one, feel as one. They even bow to the audience as one, with an elegance uniquely French.”The Times
The orchestra will be appearing in Prague for the very first time. And it will be an extraordinary debut. “Under the leadership of its chief conductor and founder François-Xavier Roth, Les Siècles is one of today’s most remarkable and progressive ensembles”, says Prague Spring programming director Josef Třeštík. The orchestra profiles itself as performing music from the Baroque through the present, always on the relevant period instruments.
To the Prague Spring Festival, they are bringing a programme of French classics by Claude Debussy and César Franck; 2022 will see the 200th anniversary of Franck’s birth. “The anniversary lets us present unjustly neglected works as well as familiar ones in an extraordinary interpretation”, says Třeštík. “I am convinced that the performance of Franck’s Symphony in D minor by Les Siècles and François-Xavier Roth will be one of the festival’s highpoints”, he adds. “We already can’t wait to be in Prague”, says Roth, who will actually appear twice at the festival. The day after the concert with the French orchestra at the Rudolfinum, he will appear in Smetana Hall at the Municipal House leading the Gürzenich-Orchester from Cologne.
The French conductor François-Xavier Roth (* 1971) is one of the most prominent artists of his generation. According to Neil Fisher, critic for The Times, “If he hasn’t already got the nickname Special FX, then Roth should adopt it”, praising his “empathetic musicality and flair for colour, sometimes conjuring up such startling touches that the players look stunned.” The son of the acclaimed organist Daniel Roth, he is sought after for his exciting charisma, inventive programming, and profundity of interpretation. At the 77th annual Prague Spring Festival, he is making his very first appearance in the Czech Republic, and he will perform on two concert programmes. First he will be at the helm of the period instrument orchestra Les Siècles at the Rudolifinum’s Dvořák Hall (31 May), then he will lead the Gürzenich-Orchester from Cologne in Smetana Hall at the Municipal House (1 June).
“I regard Roth as a model conductor for the 21st century”, says Prague Spring Festival programming director Josef Třeštík. The conductor’s interest in the broadest repertoire ranges from the Baroque to works by Classical and Romantic composer and even into the 20th century. He is also a tireless promoter of contemporary music. “Unlike other conductors, however, Roth is able to combine all this music in incredibly inventive ways on individual programmes. And the interpretations themselves, whether he is conducting Rameau, Beethoven, Stravinsky, or a premiere of a work by a contemporary composer, are anything but routine”, adds Třeštík.
In 2003 Roth founded the period instrument orchestra Les Siècles. This, however, is no ordinary historically informed interpretation ensemble that focuses on one period. Its members change instruments depending on the music they happen to be playing. “I ask the musicians to present programs of Mozart combined with Lachenmann, Debussy with Boulez, Rameau with Ravel. The virtuosity of the players of our time is not to play fantastically fast, but to change instruments, like an actor changing his costume”, says the conductor in an interview for the New York Times. Although he strives for the greatest possible historical fidelity, he sees something else as being most important. “So it’s not a question of which year, but more a question of what the composer wanted, or what the composer expected music to sound like”, he told the American newspaper in describing his philosophy. The headline called him “The Conductor Transforming Period Performance.”
Since 2015, Roth has held the post as Cologne’s Generalmusikdirektor, meaning that he is simultaneously the chief conductor of the Gürzenich-Orchester and of the Cologne Opera. As part of the 2020 worldwide celebrations of the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth, Roth prepared a series of concerts in Cologne titled “Allein Freyheit” (Freedom Alone), at which he presented a modern version of Beethoven’s concerts called “academies”. The idea, however, was not historical reconstructions, but rather the resurrection of the spirit of Beethoven’s concerts. According to Roth, they were very avant-garde, and people had no idea in advance of what music they would be hearing on the programmes. “For our ‘new academy’, we employed this aspect”, he explained. So they did not in fact announce the programme in advance. The audience was surprised by combinations of music by Bernd Alois Zimmermann and Helmut Lachenamann, special choreography, and world premieres of works by Isabel Mundra and Francesco Filidei, who worked with elements from Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, played by the world-famous pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard.
François-Xavier Roth is also the principal guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, and he regularly conducts the world’s top orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic, with which he joined the violist Tabea Zimmermann this season in performing Hindemith’s concerto Der Schwanendreher. The two artists will also be presenting that work to the Prague Spring public.
In 2018 the French state conferred on Roth its highest award, the Order of the Legion of Honour.
Since its founding in 2003 by the conductor François-Xavier Roth, Les Siècles has focused on performing works of the 17th through the 21st centuries from today’s perspective and always on historically appropriate instruments. During their concerts, the players sometimes alternate between several types of instruments. They might, for example, begin with a Baroque instrument for a suite by Lully, continue with an instrument from the 19th century in compositions by Saint-Saëns, Massenet, or Délibes, and conclude the evening on an instrument from the early 20th century in music by Igor Stravinsky. At the Munich festival Musica Viva, Les Siècles combined on a single programme the music of Jean-Philippe Rameau, Edgar Varèse , and the contemporary composer Philippe Manoury. At other times, they have devoted entire programmes to the music of Viennese Classicism. The result is an amazing variety of sounds and colours, fascinating experts and laypersons alike. There is no ensemble comparable to them today.
Critics especially acclaim the players’ ability to achieve the highest order of technical and expressive mastery of their instruments. The British newspaper Guardian calls the ensemble “very distinctive”, and the critic David Cairns from the Sunday Times says “Never have I heard so dramatic a performance, with the dramatic contrasts so violent and vivid.” The composer and journalist Robert Hugill praises “…the sheer brilliance and amazing sound of the orchestra. The balance between strings, wind and brass is shifted radically, and the woodwind has a far narrower, more edgy sound, as does the brass.”
These words are confirmed by the number of prestigious prizes they have won, including the Deutschen Schallplattenkritik three times, multiple awards of the Diapason d’Or, the 2019 Choc de Classica, and the title of Recording of the Year from the website Presto Classical for a recording of Debussy’s Jeux and Nocturnes. Les Siècles is also the only French orchestra to receive multiple nominations for a Gramophone Award, which they earned in 2018 for Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé.
“For me, the ideal way to do music is to have this philosophy in mind, that we are not a museum, we are an organic group that has to recreate, every time, the original impact of the works”, said Roth in describing his approach to the Deutsche Welle television network.
Since 2018 the orchestra has been recording on the Harmonia Mundi label, for which they realised the world premiere of Saint-Saëns’s opera Le Timbre d’argent, the ode-symphonie Christophe Colomb by Félicien David, and the cantata Velléda by Paul Dukas. At present they are recording the complete orchestral works of Berlioz, Ravel, and Debussy, and continuing with the Mahler symphonies. Other successes include a featured appearance on the television programme Presto, which was watched on the channel France 2 by several million viewers and was issued on CD with the support of the CNDP. Les Siècle is based at the Atelier Lyrique in Tourcoing, a city in the Hauts-de-France region of northern France. There, it works in close cooperation with many institutions, including the Cité de la Musique in Soissons, the Théâtre-Sénar, and the Berlioz Festival in La Côte-Saint-André.
The orchestra’s performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring at the 2013 BBC Proms on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the work’s premiere was literally a sensation. The result was breathtaking. The colours of the instruments “sounded like absolutely no other that I, or I suspect anybody who isn’t about 120, have ever heard”, wrote Paul Kilbey for Bachtrack. Three years later, the orchestra gave its debut at the Royal Festival Hall in Debussy’s Jeux and La mer, to which the conductor François-Xavier added Ravel’s Ma mere l’Oye and Piano Concerto for the Left Hand with the renowned pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. The orchestra returned to the BBC Proms in 2017 with a programme of music by Saint-Saëns and Franck. According to the magazine Gramophone, the concert “was a feast for the musical gourmet.” Among the highpoints of this year’s season of Les Siècles are a production of Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris and a tour with Isabelle Faust playing Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto.
The pianist Bertrand Chamayou is an important interpreter of the French repertoire in particular, which he covers in all of its breadth from famous works to forgotten compositions, rarities, and contemporary works. His playing stands out for its imaginativeness and confidence and for the remarkable thoroughness of his artistic approach. In 2019 he won a Gramophone Award in the Best Concerto category for an album of Saint-Saëns’s second and fifth piano concertos, which he made with the Orchestre National de France and the conductor Emmanuel Krivine. He also earned the 2016 ECHO Klassik prize for his recording of Maurice Ravel’s complete piano music. He is highly acclaimed by music critics. “Chamayou is a remarkable musician, no question” wrote Tim Ashley for the British newspaper Guardian. In a January 2021 review of Good Night!, a CD of lullabies, the critic Norman Lebrecht said “Chamayou is one to watch out for in the New Year.” Chamayou is a frequent guest at the best concert venues both as a soloist and in chamber music, and his appearances this season include performances with the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester under the baton of Lorenzo Viotti, the Orchestre de Paris led by Cristian Măcelaru, and the Czech Philharmonic and its chief conductor Semyon Bychkov. His regular chamber music partners include the violinist and the cellist Renaud and Gautier Capuçon, the violist Antoine Tamestit, and the cellist Sol Gabetta.
César Franck (1822–1890), unjustly neglected in Czech concert halls, was one of the greatest French composers of the Romantic era, and it was also he who won over the French to the virtues of German music. This was also thanks to a considerable degree to Anton Reicha (1770–1836), the famed Parisian pedagogue and a passionate creator of fugues who taught Franck the rudiments of counterpoint towards the end of his life.
Franck, called “Pater Seraphicus” by his own students, was one of the most influential musical personalities of the latter half of the 19th century, and as late as 1906 his former pupil Vincent d’Indy called him Beethoven’s true successor. Franck’s music did not look only to the past, however. He was also interested in the compositional innovations of Liszt and Wagner. He combined all of this into a remarkable whole. He composed his most mature works after 1880, when he was working as the professor of organ at the Paris Conservatoire. The orchestra Les Siècles has chosen three works from that period to put into perspective alongside Claude Debussy’s masterpiece La mer.
Franck composed the symphonic poem Le Chasseur maudit (The Accursed Hunter) in 1883 based on a ballad by the German Sturm und Drang poet Gottfried August Bürger. The orchestration of the tragic tale evokes darkness and the phantasmagorical atmosphere of a demonic hunt. Besides the characteristic sound of French horns, we hear the warning sound of bells. The work was premiered in March of 1883 at the Salle Érard in Paris under the baton of Édouard Colonne, and its instant success was one of the few in the composer’s career.
Franck dedicated his Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra (1885) to the piano virtuoso Louis Diémer the year after the soloist premiered his symphonic poem Les Djinns. Diémer’s pupil Alfred Cortot fittingly described the work as “three different poetic states”, and we should add that this remarkably fine composition is a marvellous demonstration of Franck’s handling of cyclical form, in which he took late Beethoven and Liszt’s music as his point of departure. Here, piano and orchestra share absolutely equally in the development of the musical ideas, which flow from beginning to end without interruption. Diémer premiered the Symphonic Variations with the Société Nationale de Musique in May 1886 with the composer conducting.
Twenty years later, Claude Debussy (1862-1918) wrote one of his most famous works, La mer, an ambitious and innovative composition that was immensely progressive for its day. The description of “three symphonic sketches” is more fitting than “symphonic poem”. The music depicts the sea, which had fascinated Debussy since his childhood. It reflects all of his passion for the fine arts, and especially his love for the works of the artist Joseph Turner (1775 – 1851), who was thought by Debussy to give best expression to mysteriousness, and of Katsushika Hokusai (1760 – 1849); the composer chose the famous woodblock print The Great Wave off Kanagawa from a cycle of 36 views of Mount Fuji for the cover of the score.
Debussy’s handling of rhythm, tempo, and especially instrumental colour is innovative with almost explosive tectonic changeability, harmonies that blur like the shadings of a painting on a large canvas, chords that often do not resolve, as if they have no resting place, and short motifs developed by solo passages derived from previous motifs. In the middle scherzo-like movement, the composer uses non-European modality, and the large percussion section includes a tam-tam and glockenspiel.
This masterpiece of musical impressionism was written under the dramatic circumstances of the composer’s divorce. Debussy finished the work in 1905 in Eastbourne, a town on the southern coast of England, by which time the composer had remarried, and the premiere took place that October in Paris with the Orchestre Lamoureux conducted by Camille Chevillard. The critics initially rejected the work, with some finding that the sea was unrecognisable in the music or that it lacked grandeur, but success came three years later in Paris and London.
The programme celebrating the 200th anniversary of Franck’s birth will end with his only symphony, which is also his most frequently performed work, the Symphony in D minor. This innovative composition is an excellent example of the blending of French and German influences in a cyclical form where important themes appear in all parts of the symphony, which is in three movements, unusually for its day. The composer dedicated it to his famous pupil Henri Duparc. Because of anti-German sentiments in connection with the Franco-Prussian war of 1871, the premiere could not be given under the auspices of the Société nationale de musique, of which Franck was a member, so instead it was played in February 1889 by the Orchestra of the Paris Conservatoire with the conductor Jules Garcin. Although the initial reactions of the critics were divided, the symphony has since become a part of the standard repertoire, and it has been recorded countless times.
Emblematic recordings include those by Pierre Monteux with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Charles Dutoit with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Semyon Bychkov with the Orchestre de Paris, and a live 1945 version with the Vienna Philharmonic and Wilhelm Furtwängler.