We have a lot to thank Belgium for. Apart from specialising in all my favourite feel-good food groups – chocolate, beer, frites and waffles – its rich cultural heritage has embedded a deep musical history dating back to the Renaissance era and the highly influential Franco-Flemish school. Being a small country, Belgium is not awash with orchestras, but one particular outfit, the Brussels Philharmonic, is starting to attract more attention. Founded in 1935, originally as a studio orchestra for public broadcasting, it now exists as an independent orchestra, and with French conductor Stéphane Denève taking over in 2015, we are starting to see more adventurous programming combining 21st-century music with traditional repertoire.

Stéphane Denève © Uwe Ditz
Stéphane Denève
© Uwe Ditz

To open their UK tour, Denève’s cosmopolitan programme did exactly this. It also cleverly marked two centenaries, with music from Prokofiev representing Russia in the decades following the Bolshevik Revolution and a piece from Mark-Anthony Turnage commemorating a WWI battle on Belgian soil in 1917, fittingly performed here in Remembrance week. Being a purely instrumental piece rather than a text-based vocal work, Turnage wanted Passchendaele to be a more abstract reflection of the landscape rather than programmatic, and in doing so, he continued to quench his thirst for exploring the devastating impact of conflict on human lives. The opening trombone lament emerged as a chorale-like introduction to an increasingly angry and agitated narrative, with splashes of violence colourfully tossed around. Denève provided a fully committed performance, with all departments flourishing as caustic exclamations dissolved into slowly moving sheets of placidity and a tranquil but questioning postlude.

From devastation to indulgence, Nikolaj Znaider joined the orchestra in a rhapsodic performance of Bruch’s immensely popular Violin Concerto no. 1 in G minor. The collaboration seemed a happy one, and far from being a routine run-through of this over-familiar work, there was an immediacy in this performance which, apart from an uncharacteristically tentative opening from Znaider, displayed synchronicity and a wonderfully supportive and nicely-shaped narrative from Denève. Znaider was his usual robust self, showing technical brilliance and drawing out the richest of sounds from his “Kreisler” Guarnerius del Gesu violin, with sweetness and passion in abundance in the Adagio. The Finale was zesty and precise with flourishes aplenty.

The Brussels Philharmonic was clearly not fazed by large orchestral tapestries. For the two ballet suites making up the second half, the orchestra’s setting was turned to exuberant. Prokofiev’s Cinderella is one of his best-loved ballets and, as is common for conductors these days, Denève compiled his own orchestral suite. In both this and Ravel’s luxurious Daphnis and Chloé Suite no. 2, the Brussels Philharmonic was spectacular. A fulsome and well-balanced sound filled the hall, with only one or two moments where sweeping melodies overpowered the more intricate accompaniments. Everything was performed with vigour, precision and good old-fashioned enthusiasm. The Prokofiev Suite was peppered with acidic and jokey tongue-in-cheekness, with many magical moments and some well-judged ponderous grinding. Ravel’s Suite was no less captivating. This is a piece where it is so easy to lose yourself in its sumptuousness, and Denève coaxed from the orchestra an exotic and creamy lushness, from the delicately shimmering flutterings of the opening daybreak through to the superbly executed flute solo that rippled and flowed beautifully and the rapturous gestures of ecstasy in the driving 5/4 rhythms of the closing Bacchanale

The Farandole from Bizet’s L’Arlésienne provided a suitably rousing encore to end an extremely satisfying concert by a pairing that is clearly going places.