A Sunday, lovely weather and the start of the school holidays is not a combination that’s likely to be ideal for good concert attendance, but it was a shame to see the Cadogan Hall so empty, with little more than a third of the seats taken, for a visit by the Brussels Philharmonic under chief conductor Stéphane Denève as part of the Zurich International Orchestra series, especially when the quality of the music-making was so fine. The theme of the programme was Russia: two substantial works by Prokofiev and Rachmaninov, preceded by a piece by the  contemporary composer Guillaume Connesson, a combination that proved to be an interesting and exciting mix.

Stéphane Denève © Drew Farrell
Stéphane Denève
© Drew Farrell

Connesson is on the way to becoming a signature composer for Denève and the Brussels Phil, having played his work in London and elsewhere, and with a recording already under their belts. Maslenitsa is the last work in a symphonic trilogy, three pieces devoted to Italy, Germany and Russia. This focuses on the latter and is richly infused with the fragrances of Prokofiev, Shostakovich and a whole rack of Russian composers; hints of jazz surface and dissipate alongside shimmering dance themes. It takes as its title the old Slavic sun festival that was subsequently adapted by Christianity; its nature is a curious blend of paganism and orthodoxy, a representation of the final opportunity for joyous revelry before the austerity of Lent. Connesson’s writing for the brass section is demanding and was given a bold and rounded delivery by the Brussel’s forces, while the deeper strings rumbled with a thunderous brooding. A little more definition from Denève would have been welcome (at times the playing felt a little monotextural) but he gave the piece an impulsive drive that made it quite exciting.

Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto in E minor was partly inspired by Rostropovich; hearing him perform an arrangement of his earlier Cello Concerto in E minor, the composer was inspired to revisit the instrument, producing the Cello Sonata in C major and revising the concerto into its new form. It’s a ferociously demanding piece and full credit to our soloist, Jérôme Pernoo, that, excluding a brief period of fatigue in the second movement, he was able to end the piece with as much energy as he began it. Tonal colour was an immediately attractive feature of his performance and there was a warm sheen to it that avoided a flat glossiness. Denève brought precision from the orchestra with an emphasis on the military element in the first movement, his approach in easy harmony with Pernoo’s. The second movement is a test of stamina, physically exhausting to play. Pernoo slashed at the instrument with seething precision, the speed and agility of his technique as much a delight to watch as to hear as her tore through the cadenza. Commendable contributions from the horns and woodwinds contributed to a feeling that this was a piece the orchestra knew well enough to play with flair.

The Symphony-Concerto came right at the end of Prokofiev’s life and the evening’s final piece took us right to the end of Rachmaninov’s life. The Symphonic Dances look back to Rachmaninov’s earlier work and a conservative music landscape, but also forward – witness the dazzling writing for alto saxophone in the first movement, here brilliantly performed by Pieter Pellens. Denève gave a soaring interpretation; as with the rest of the programme, pacing was thrilling and there was no absence of texture here. Vibrancy in the woodwind balanced with subtle colours from the harp; the second movement saw a poignant solo from concertmaster Henry Raudales, and the waltz theme saw a keen display of colour from the strings, balanced against clean woodwind playing. The final movement seared with energy, the orchestra whipped up by Denève for a raucous finale.