Recording of the Week,
Beethoven and Gossec from François-Xavier Roth & Les Siècles
Beethoven is invariably described as a musical revolutionary, and it would be hard to argue otherwise. As a new recording by François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles shows, though, there’s also a deep connection between Beethoven’s music and the literal political revolutions of his time. An intelligent pairing with François-Joseph Gossec’s final symphony draws attention to this link, and revitalises a work that could – particularly in this anniversary year – be at risk of simply being 'trotted out'.
The very first bars dispel any complacency one might feel. That iconic 'fate' motif is often presented in a metrical way, with the pauses after each of its two statements neat and rhythmical; not so here. Roth cuts both short, giving an impetuous, breathless feeling that stumbles headlong into the movement proper.
Les Siècles are known as one of the finest and most exciting period-instrument ensembles around – and it’s not hard to see why here. With little or no vibrato in the strings, and strident brass playing that intentionally verges on the shrill (particularly in the trumpets), this is no comfortable modern interpretation but a gritty account that leans into the vivid timbres the instruments offer.
That extroverted approach to wind playing illustrates one of the key connections between Beethoven and the French Revolution (whose ideals he was known to share – the story of his fury at Napoleon’s betrayal of them is well known in connection with the Eroica). In the early years of the Revolution, mass festivals of national self-consecration on Paris’s Champ de Mars were a regular socio-political event; the outdoor setting of these required that emphasis be placed on wind instruments, whose sound would carry. It’s thought that this may have inspired Beethoven’s innovative expansion of the woodwind section in the triumphant finale of his work, and the musicians of Les Siècles do not hold back in their commitment to this soundworld of thrilling fervour.
From this perspective, it’s hard not to view the blaze of light that closes the work as a manifestation of the victorious revolutionary spirit. The crushingly emphatic cadential material at the symphony’s end becomes almost a prefiguration of the bombast that would later close Shostakovich’s own Fifth. One can only speculate about Beethoven’s exact personal politics, but this approach has evidently energised the performers, inspiring them to rediscover the life and joy in a work that they must all know inside-out.
It’s in this same spirit of revolution that we turn to Gossec’s Symphonie à dix-sept parties from 1809. Gossec was one of many composers who straddled the Revolution; like England’s Tallis and Byrd before him, he had no problem with trimming sails and following the political wind, for instance repurposing a devoutly Catholic O Salutaris as a hymn to the state cult of revolutionary France.
The Symphonie is thought to have been inspired by Beethoven’s Fifth, and it’s often languished in its shadow. This new recording redresses the balance; hearing Les Siècles extract every drop of character from Gossec’s music, as well as from their period instruments (particular plaudits go to the clarinets for some wonderfully nimble playing in the first movement) is an absolute joy, and I’m now firmly convinced that Gossec should be seen as far more than merely a decent composer who had the bad luck to coexist with Beethoven.
Indeed, of all the tracks on this album it was Gossec’s minuet that I found myself listening to on repeat – a movement that I’ve seen described elsewhere as 'contrapuntally severe', but which in Roth’s hands is a stirring piece peppered with trills and wave after wave of cascading scales in the strings. The dense counterpoint is there, and together with the trills suggests a look back to an older, Ancien Régime soundworld, but it’s certainly no dry exercise; rather, it evokes the bold, swaggering spirit of the horns’ first entry in Beethoven’s third movement.
If you’re concerned about 'Beethoven fatigue' in 2020, fear not. It’s a shamefully obvious pun but this truly is a 'revolutionary' and outstanding recording, achieving the near-impossible in making a work that’s too ubiquitous for its own good sound fresh and new. The Gossec is no second fiddle, but a fascinating counterpoint to the Fifth. Le jour de gloire est arrivé!