At a time when touring presents both financial and political challenges to orchestras, and amid an ever dwindling number of international orchestras straying north of London, this visit from the Belgian National Orchestra was warmly welcomed in Manchester.

Roberto González-Monjas conducts the Belgian National Orchestra
© Belgian National Orchestra

The evening’s piano concerto, originally advertised as Tchaikovsky’s, was switched at the last minute – and without any clearly publicised reason – for Mozart’s 25th. The latter is undisputedly a great work, though some may have raised eyebrows if they were expecting a Romantic concerto of Tchaikovsky’s grandeur. Nonetheless, Paul Lewis and the orchestra gave a lively, robust account of Mozart’s C major concerto. Though played with modern instruments, the slimmed-down string section and dry timpani and brass sound made for a punchy sound palette, the orchestra playing at the very tip of Roberto González-Monjas’ baton. 

The energetic Spanish conductor maintained fluid tempos, while some highly expressive wind solos and tastefully light string vibrato added sparkle. There was huge character in much of the woodwind playing all evening, and here one sensed a huge amount of fun being had in their phrasing, particularly in the finale. Lewis led from the front with swaggering joie de vivre in the outer movements and songful eloquence in the central Andante.

The highlight of the evening was a joyous account of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony. Here again, the BNO seemed to relish every moment of the score, players frequently turning and duetting with each other in the woodwinds, and a rich string sound emanating right from the back desks of the section. They seemed to move as one in their seats amid the waves of the first movement, before hurtling into a thrilling development passage with full-length bows and brassy horns accenting the movement’s climax. The Poco adagio saw more strong chamber playing – here between trombone and clarinet – while balancing carefully to the soft hum of Darius Battiwalla’s well voiced organ chords.

The Scherzo was vigorous without ever over-egging the drama, allowing subtle details to shine through. Despite González-Monjas’ hyper-demonstrative style (one which might make even Andris Nelsons seem somewhat reserved), the result was wonderfully airborne, notwithstanding the occasional lapse in ensemble. When the great C major finale eventually arrived, the movement’s architecture was carefully observed, with the throttle’s wide-open setting being reserved for the symphony’s final minutes.

The concert’s opening had been a rewarding discovery in Respighi’s Preludio, Corale e Fuga, written for his graduation from the Bologna Conservatory. This three-movement party piece, played without pause, opened with superbly sotto voce brass playing before erupting into a skittish Presto. In the Corale, velvety strings provided a warm backdrop for attractive violin and harp duets, and in the taut finale, nimble horn solos gave way to a noble coda.

It isn’t often one sees an orchestra having this much fun, and even if a rainy November Monday wasn’t the most auspicious occasion for large audience attraction, this was a thoroughly enjoyable evening.