At first glance, Stravinsky and Bach seem like two very different sound worlds. But conductor François-Xavier Roth has put both composers on the programme of his Philharmoniker concerts: alongside Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka and the Divertimento from the ballet Le Baiser de la fée, it includes Johann Sebastian Bach’s Concerto for Oboe d’amore with Albrecht Mayer, principal oboist of the Berliner Philharmoniker, as the soloist. François-Xavier Roth reveals in this interview why the two composers go so well together and what the appeal of this programme is.
You are conducting a concert with the Philharmoniker with two very different pieces by Igor Stravinsky. What aspects of Stravinsky will we get to know?
The combination of Petrushka and Le Baiser de la fée is very interesting. The two pieces were written far apart – the ballet Petrushka came out in 1911, Le Baiser de la fée in 1928 – but there are similarities: both are based on fairy tales. The music is about richness of timbre and rhythm. Both Petrushka and Le Baiser de la fée are very brilliant works in which the orchestral musicians stand out well with their solos. The combination is also interesting because Petrushka is a very famous piece, while Le Baiser de la fée is almost unknown. This shows the problematic aspect of Stravinsky’s career: he had such an incredible success with his first three ballets – Firebird, Petrushka and Le Sacre du printemps – that afterwards he struggled his whole life to prove that he was not only the composer of these three ballets.
The ballets were written for performances in Paris. Can you also identify French influences in Stravinsky’s music?
At the beginning of the 20th century, Paris saw the rise of the Ballets russes, a Russian ballet ensemble led by the legendary impresario Sergei Diaghilev. Stravinsky is a child of the Ballets russes. Diaghilev had commissioned Stravinsky at very short notice to write a piece, The Firebird, for his ballet company. After the premiere in Paris in 1910, Stravinsky immediately became a superstar there. Although he was born in Russia and rooted in Russian culture, his experiences in Paris meant that he adapted much of the French sound and style of orchestral treatment. For me, however, Stravinsky is first and foremost a European composer – more than a Russian or French one.
What is important to you when you conduct Stravinsky?
I have a very precise idea of his music. My goal is to make it sound as modern as it was back then. In Petrushka, I want to show the revolutionary aspect of the music; Le Baiser de la fée, on the other hand, is very Romantic, almost in the style of Tchaikovsky. These two different facets fascinate me and I want to bring them out.
How does the third element of the programme, Bach’s Concerto for Oboe d’Amore, fit in?
Stravinsky and Bach fit well together – because there are some similarities in their music. There is counterpoint, which both composers loved, the spirituality of their music and – not to forget – the rhythm. Both focus a lot on rhythm, their music has a real groove.
How did your collaboration with Albrecht Mayer develop?
I have known Albrecht Mayer for a long time. I admire his musicality, his tone, his passion for Bach. But we haven’t worked together until now. This is the first time – and it is a great pleasure. He loves Bach and is at one with his music. I’m looking forward to performing together. It will be very exciting because we are playing Bach’s concerto with a very small orchestra.
So a bit of chamber music between two large-scale Stravinsky works. Could you tell me why people should definitely not miss this concert?
Because in addition to a very famous work by Stravinsky, you can also discover a very unknown piece by him. Moreover, it is not every week that you hear Bach’s Oboe d’amore concerto – and with such an outstanding performer as Albrecht Mayer.