Music Review

In Symphony Hall, early works from modern masters

Francois-Xavier Roth conducts pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the BSO during Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 1 at Symphony Hall Thursday night.
Robert Torres
Francois-Xavier Roth conducts pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the BSO during Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 1 at Symphony Hall Thursday night.

Judging from the results of their recent collaborations, French conductor Francois-Xavier Roth and the BSO are clearly building a warm and productive rapport. This season Roth was granted the privilege of leading two weeks of subscription concerts. And the admiration is evidently mutual. In an interview with the BSO’s Brian Bell, Roth recalled telling the BSO players, following their 2016 performances of Stravinsky’s “Petrouchka,” “you are the best modern . . . ‘French’ orchestra.” He no doubt meant that the BSO still retains in memory, from its tradition running back through Charles Munch and Pierre Monteux, the colors of the French orchestral palette, a palette Stravinsky himself had in his ears when he created “Petrouchka.”

With “Petrouchka” behind them, Roth chose to build this week’s program around another Stravinsky masterwork from the same era, “The Firebird.” Thursday night’s performance of the complete ballet was hard-hitting and almost cinematically vivid. Roth found a way to organically shape the score’s broadest arcs while also creating space for innumerable small details to speak. Woodwind and brass solos rang out with particular eloquence. And the crowd’s ovation was notably prolonged. No great powers of clairvoyance are necessary to see a Roth-led “Rite of Spring” somewhere in the BSO’s subscription future. 

Interestingly, Roth chose to open the evening with Webern’s Passacaglia, a score written just one year before “Firebird” though hailing from an altogether different sound world. It was Webern’s first official work, his Opus 1, composed just after concluding his studies with Arnold Schoenberg. In later years, Webern would of course become known for his sublime miniatures, radically compressed works that speak with a haunting, aphoristic power. Yet in 1908, all that still lay in the unknowable future.


Indeed, the Passacaglia glitters with a late-Romantic opulence. Here is a young master’s tour of a castle he will soon begin dismantling stone by stone. And we listen with this in mind, hearing the Passacaglia as we might look at an old photograph, scanning the features of each face for signs of the people they will become. For anyone seeking them out, these omens of Webern’s future style are indeed present in his Opus 1, especially in Roth’s account on Thursday, alert as it was to the music’s timbral subtleties, and to a sense of semantic surplus gathering behind the notes.  

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Between the two works came Bartok’s First Concerto, here given a piercingly intense performance from soloist Pierre-Laurent Aimard. A specialist in the music of the 20th century, Aimard played with both intellectual penetration and a subtle feel for the music’s sensual surfaces. It was an apt reminder that Bartok himself, through his piano teacher Istvan Thoman, was just one generation removed from another famous Hungarian named Franz Liszt. 

All of this said, there was still one more element hovering over Thursday’s performance. Just as subscribers streamed into Symphony Hall, an appalling new report was ricocheting around the internet with allegations against conductor Charles Dutoit from six more women, including one allegation of a rape said to have taken place while Dutoit was conducting an undisclosed East Coast orchestra. It’s an abidingly surreal situation, as the classical music world continues wrestling with its demons while subscription series across the country tread onward with their weekly servings of the sublime. What’s more, it seems all but certain that the volume of cognitive dissonance will only keep rising as more stories appear. One can’t help but wonder how much higher it must go before a deeper reckoning begins about the broader cultures that enabled these abuses in the first place.  



Francois-Xavier Roth, conductor


At Symphony Hall, Jan. 11 (repeats Jan. 13)

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler