François-Xavier Roth conducted the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican in:Debussy, Bartók, and Bruckner. Roth has a flair for designing thought-provoking programmes that stimulate the mind as well as the spirit. He's also a good communicator whose enthusiasm inspires listeners as well as musicians - no surprise he's now the LSO's Chief Guest Conductor.
All music is "new" in that good music is original. Hence the value of making connections that enhance the unique qualities of each work. Debussy Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune was a breakthrough. Though we hear it so often, it's bracing to remember that it was written 123 years ago. It defies categories. Its exoticism stretches tonality, its chromatics at once rich, yet clean and modern. Think of fin de siècle art with its curving forms, against chaste backdrops. The Prélude lends itself to dance because it is sensuous, yet also lucidly disciplined. You don't mess with dance or it falls apart. No chance of that with the LSO and Roth.
From the familiar to the much less familiar: Bartók Viola Concerto sz 120 with soloist Antoine Tamestit. A bit of an orphan work, revised and completed, perhaps to fit conventional taste. But the point is not whether one likes or dislikes a piece so much as figuring out how it works. Oddly enough, I kept thinking of Gérard Grisey Les espaces acoustiques. Though the pieces are completely different, they both explore the character of the viola. Hence the combinations: viola, then flutes and oboes, the viola suddenly strident, communing with trumpets, then horns. There are elements of dance, Gypsy czardas, Scottish reels and even, possibly jazz. Perhaps I thought of Grisey because Roth and the LSO prefaced Bartók with Debussy, priming me to think in terms of microtonal colour. "spectralism" to use the buzz word. By this stage in his life, Bartók wasn't in a position to innovate, but we can get a glimpse of what might have been.
And so to Bruckner Symphony no 4. As so often the title "Romantic" is misleading. It's not romantic in the sense of Hollywood and not even in the sense of Wagner. Note the instrumentation, which is relatively limited. Consider the use of horns and rustic imagery. Aha! Bruckner's doing Weber Der Freischütz, or even Beethoven's Pastoral, even Smetana, in entirely his own way, of course. Thus the passionate tremelos and the sense of physical movement. Bruckner, dancing! The relatively restrained forces of the LSO keep the textures vigorous and lively. Very well suited to Roth's energetic style.