Vilde Frang should be no stranger to Britten’s Violin Concerto Op.15, having made a recording of it a couple of years ago with the Hamburg Radio Symphony. Yet as she took to the stage with the National Orchestra of Belgium and guest conductor Stanislav Kochanovsky something was missing. To begin with, the orchestral opening was too aggressive, with the orchestral descent after the initial timpani opening giving me less of a sinking feeling than I had heard before. By comparison, the solo entry was diffident. Much as it’s hard to fault her technical mastery of the material – the double stops and simultaneous pizzicato and bowing, for example – she short-changed exposition of the emotional content.

Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang
© Marco Borggreve

In the first movement, Frang’s delivery was more petulant than moody and contemplative.  Her tone at times bordered on being too sharp for the necessary subtlety and not muscular enough even when it was needed. She kept up a sprightly pace in the second movement, exhibiting plenty of energy and rapid-fire momentum, with the orchestra providing emphatic support. As the movement progressed, the breakneck speed soared to the point of almost being unbearable, before she seized control and brought it back to earth.

The Passacaglia finale was a long and winding road to trouble. Conductor Kochanovsky let the orchestra loose a little too much and was not able to bring some sense of order to the movement. Meanwhile, the soloist continued to strut her stuff the best she knew how and drifted in and out of stream with the orchestra.

The second half of the programme was devoted to 17 excerpts from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet. Unlike Britten’s Violin Concerto, which was a work conceived in exile, as it were, this ballet was Prokofiev’s calling card to come home. Having lived overseas since 1918, Prokofiev accepted the commission from the Kirov Ballet (now Mariinsky) as a way to make a triumphant return to the Soviet Union and opportunistically get ahead of Shostakovich, whose opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk had just stoked the mocking ire of Stalin and his bureaucracy. The gestation of Romeo and Juliet, supposed to be in fulfilment of the commission, turned out to tortuous.

There were few surprises in Kochanovsky’s choices of excerpts, which covered the full spectrum of the story, but by placing The Duke’s Command as the opening excerpt – before the Introduction – he ensured a strong and forceful opening with the full brunt of brass and percussion. The Introduction that followed, by contrast, was even more rustic and genteel. Assisted by the woodwinds, the orchestra was full of verve and bounce in Young Juliet, in which the flute and clarinet stood out, but in The Quarrel and The Fight, the bass drum and low brass injected strong tension.

The most striking performance was, as expected, in the Dance of the Knights, in which Kochanovsky maintained a relentless march rhythm with the help of bass and snare drums to the resounding battle cries on low brass, as the woodwinds provided some relief in an interlude.

Oozing with lush lyricism and sensitivity where necessary, as in Romeo's Variation and Love Dance, the orchestra proved it was also capable of a shrill tone and sharp exchanges in Meeting of Tybalt and Mercutio and The Duel. A duet between violin and viola stood out in the Balcony Scene. Beyond that, omens of tragedy shrouded the rest of the excerpts, starting with the pointed Finale to Act 2.

The last four excerpts surrounded Juliet’s isolation and death. Although traces of young Juliet’s theme were discernible in Juliet’s Room, a prescient sense of doom soon took over in the high strings. Juliet’s Funeral was a long lament that plumbed the depths of her desperation, but Juliet’s Death was more like an extended eulogy that glorified her triumphant transport into another world.

Kochanovsky left nothing to chance, and it showed. His meticulous attention to the kaleidoscopic range of orchestral colours and the timbres of the instruments in different combinations bore fruit.