Fledglings nervously poised for take-off will perch on the edge of their nest, flexing gangly legs, bobbing heads, stretching their wings before launching into the air. Perhaps Hervé Niquet is a keen ornithologist, for his conducting shares many of these attributes. Towering over the podium, he bounces and sways, arms soaring and swooping, the back of his black, sequinned frock-coat flicking like extravagant tail feathers. Under his hawkish eye, the Brussels Philharmonic followed obediently in an evening that only really took flight in the Symphony in D minor by their compatriot, César Franck.

Hervé Niquet © Eric Manas
Hervé Niquet
© Eric Manas

Gabriel Fauré's suite Masques et bergamasques made for a light amuse-bouche, four delicious mouthfuls of French whimsy. The suite takes its title from a line in Paul Verlaine's Clair de lune, the same poem which inspired Debussy's Suite bergamasque. The Ouverture bustled in on lithe strings, Niquet not only preferring to split his violins on antiphonal lines, but his double basses too. The Brussels Phil woodwinds offered plenty of character, although the clarinets' hooty tone lacked silk. The Gavotte, launched by Niquet – flamingo-like – from one leg, was driven too hard and there were moments in the Pastorale where the string pizzicatos weren't remotely together in a performance lacking a degree of French polish.

Concertos are often set up as a conflict between solo instrument and orchestra, which can produce exciting tension. Here, soloist and conductor seemed to have conflicting ideas about Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor, Niquet seeing it as a work full of Classical drive, while Barry Douglas took a more Romantic route, his ruminative playing in the first movement like gently glowing embers onto which Niquet occasionally blew air to kindle the music back to life. Douglas phrased the Intermezzo with poetry and there was punch in the Allegro vivace finale, along with a few wistful rubatos. At times, the string attack was far from unanimous.

César Franck's sole symphony met with a hostile reception in Paris – too 'Germanic' in its thick scoring and composed, unusually for the time, in just three movements. It bursts with great melodies, though, culminating in a gloriously optimistic finale which recalls themes from the two previous movements. From the very first notes, the Brussels Phil played it with utter conviction. Niquet, who often applies his period instrument credentials to later Romantic works, was happy for his strings to play with generous vibrato, giving a wonderful warmth to the sound. The brass section, lined up at the back in a row, threatened to overpower Cadogan Hall, but never quite did so, Niquet balancing his forces shrewdly. The second movement, beginning with bardic strophes for harp before a yearning cor anglais solo, was taken speedily, before strings glistened and shimmered. A purposeful pace was set for the Allegro non troppo third movement, brass rasping urgently. Niquet underlined each returning theme before a joyous, chest-bursting finale.

A mixed bag, but the terrific Franck – and Niquet's avian antics – made the evening worthwhile. Niquet's showmanship evidently extends to his orchestra, who all neatly bowed together in accepting their applause.