The success story of the Brussels Philharmonic is one of the miracles of the Belgian classical music scene. Under conductors Michel Tabachnik and, since 2015/16, Stéphane Denève the stuffy, bureaucratic Flemish radio band from yesteryear happily morphed into a vibrant, independent formation of international fame and acclaim. This concert led by Denève with music by Connesson, Beethoven and Prokofiev duly demonstrated its strengths, as well as some limitations. A luminous performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto in D major by Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider considerably added to its attraction.

Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider © Lars Gundersen
Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider
© Lars Gundersen

True to their mission to include a 21st-century work in their concerts, Denève and the Brussels Philharmonic launched into Guillaume Connesson’s Flammenschrift (2012) with enough excitement and energy to illuminate the whole city. The close bond that Denève and the Brussels Phil have forged with French composer Connesson can only be welcomed, and fits into their newly launched platform CffOR – Centre for Future Orchestral Repertoire. A tribute to Beethoven, and in particular to the traditionally held image of the musical genius as angry misanthrope, Flammenschrift contrasts some nine minutes of rugged impetuosity with a sprinkle of veiled lyricism, using the same forces as a modern orchestra performing Beethoven’s Fifth. The remarkable transparency obtained by Denève, with clearly differentiated strings sections and delightful winds in the more restrained middle passage, allowed to hear every strata of Connesson’s richly textured composition. Irresistible fun, too, ending with a “coup de surprise”. A better introduction to a contemporary creation is hardly imaginable.

Beethoven’s Violin Concerto doesn’t need any introduction and, ironically, couldn’t be more distant from the character portrayed in Connesson’s piece. For Danish violinist Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider it’s above all an expression of great vitality and joy, as demonstrated by his energetic yet subtle accounts of the outer movements. The rich and ample timbre of his 1741 Guarneri “del Gesù” – played over a century ago by none other than Fritz Kreisler – beautifully suited the bel canto quality he brought to the lyrical passages, like the ending of the development of the Allegro ma non troppo, or indeed the Larghetto. His thrilling rendition of the Kreisler cadenza in the first movement concluded in spellbinding stillness. The success of this performance was largely based on a close understanding between soloist and conductor. Znaider and Denève share the same care for detail and expressive force. When not shaping the themes with great clarity, Denève proved the most sensitive of accompanists.

With Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, however, we were reminded that a conductor doesn’t give himself any presents when programming ballet music out of its theatrical context. Denève understands this all too well. Addressing the audience, he assured us jokingly they wouldn’t be performing the full-length ballet of two hours 30 minutes – something I wouldn’t have minded – but rather, as many others did before him, an handpicked selection, to ensure the narrative cohesion which is missing from Prokofiev’s own suites created for other purposes. Yet, in spite of all the enthusiasm, this Romeo still sounded like a series of orchestral spectaculars, analytical rather than evocative, often too rigidly conducted and never really inhabiting the drama. The orchestra’s bright sonority also seemed suddenly rather ineffective in fair Verona. “Eclatant” - brilliant - was the word that came to mind. But romantic? Not really. Passionate? No way. Poignant, as this music definitely should be in its climactic moments? Neither.

The woodwinds, fine as they are, were rather timid, lacking in projection in “The Young Juliet”. “The Masks” capered mechanically and hesitating violins also compromised the linking sections in “The Montagues and Capulets”. While “The Dance of the Knights” was arrogant and brassy to delight, the middle Moderato tranquillo sagged. “The Balcony Scene” never caught fire in spite of the beautiful lower strings. “The Death of Tybalt” had tremendous drive, fuelled again by the strings and the brilliant percussion section, but Denève’s tempo was too broad for comfort in the closing moments, and the brass were drowned by the percussion. Gritty cellos couldn’t warm up Friar Laurence’s chilly cell and the finale in Juliet’s tomb was just loud and strangely truncated. No happy ending, then, for an otherwise excellent concert.

***11