In its sixth season, the Zurich International Concert Series has attracted some well-known, but less-heard orchestral names to London. The series enables the full force of orchestras to be heard in the relatively intimate space of Cadogan Hall, which is otherwise famous for attracting chamber ensembles of the highest calibre.

Brussels Philharmonic G Ars Musica 2010 © Virginie Schreyen
Brussels Philharmonic G Ars Musica 2010
© Virginie Schreyen

It was the Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra that graced the Cadogan with its presence this time. Established in 1935 with the backing of the public broadcasting network, it has worked with many leading conductors and soloists, and, in the course of its existence, has performed premières by some eminent composers, including Messiaen and Stravinsky. It has, quietly and unassumingly, taken on roles in the world of film, too – it provided the musical soundtrack to the otherwise silent film The Artist, for example.

Its Musical Director, the conductor Michel Tabachnik, is – despite his penchant for Xenakis (who regarded him as his favourite interpreter) – famed for programming well-loved and familiar music in such a way that both serious aficionados and the general public are placated. Tonight’s offering, a pan-European selection of Bartók, Beethoven, Debussy and Ravel was no exception. It also allowed the audience to see and hear how it responded to the quite different timbres and textures of each work.

The concert opened with Beethoven’s Egmont overture, an item far better known than the other pieces of incidental music in the series he composed for Goethe’s tragedy of the same name. Beethoven was reputedly very excited about being commissioned (by order of the Imperial Court Theatre, Vienna), and the music seems to reflect this. There are few moments of stillness in the overture – it is highly dramatic, representing themes such as conflict, tyranny, and death. The Brussels Philharmonic’s take on this piece was forceful – even a touch aggressive –and provided a dramatic start to this musically colourful concert. What few moments of quiet there were in this piece were more sensitively handled.

Bartók’s Piano Concerto no. 3 was next, and provided a stark musical contrast to the Beethoven. Unlike Bartók’s first two piano concerti, no. 3 is a relatively restrained affair, having been composed at a time when his music became more tonal and lyrical in nature. It was intended for performance by his wife, the then-eminent pianist Ditta Pásztory, which perhaps further explains the “softness” of this particular work. The German-born pianist Markus Groh gave an excellent performance. He himself was very restrained in his manner, with minimal movement at the piano, and giving away very little – if anything – visually. Initial impressions of a culpable lack of emotional feel for the piece soon gave way to my thought that Groh in fact understood the work perfectly; his poker face utterly belied the careful communication of his fingers on the keyboard. The first movement (Allegretto) was particularly skilfully interpreted, and led a few audience members to begin applauding – though that was abruptly silenced by Tabachnik’s not-so-subtly raising his hand. The Adagio religioso second movement was marred by some tuning issues, with the flutes and clarinets both coming in flat on occasion. The vigorous Finale was lively and exciting, though the brass section could have done with being a little less excited in the interests of balance.

The second half took on a more impressionistic bent, opening with Debussy’s quasi-symphonic masterpiece La mer. Debussy himself seems to have had a fascination with water and its role as subject-matter of musical paintings: works such as Jardins sous la pluie and Sirènes were painstakingly constructed to evoke very particular images of water. Of the sea, he once said “I love the sea and I have listened to it passionately”. La mer takes three very different maritime “moods” as its basis – the sea in its relatively calm, lapping state; the gently rippling waves playing with the sunlight, and the stormy relationship between the sea and the wind. The work demands from the orchestra a full palette of tone and expression, and the Brussels Philharmonic pulled it off very successfully, though in the first movement I felt that more could have been done to join the various fragments together more fluidly.

In an entirely different way, Ravel’s Bolero also paints a picture. Originally envisaged as a piece to be accompanied by ballet dancers, Ravel termed it a “danse lascive”; with its relentless propulsion, repeated phrases and slow, smooth build-up of orchestral forces, one can see why. This showed the Brussels Philharmonic at its best, the various sections enthusiastically bringing out their solos and creating a gorgeous gradual crescendo and fierce climax.

The orchestra and its conductor were well received by the substantially below capacity audience, and it was the humorous rendition of Brahms's Hungarian Dance no. 1 that received the loudest applause, Tabachnik at one point slowing the orchestra right down and wiping a mock tear or two from his cheek. This concert may not have offered life-altering interpretations of the pieces on offer, but a most enjoyable evening was had nonetheless.