Conductors do make a difference with orchestras. We were reminded of this once again when Stanislav Kochanovsky stood before the Belgian National Orchestra to lead them through an all-Russian triple bill, gathering Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky. The Russian maestro has been guesting with the BNO on a handful of occasions and their collaboration hints at real chemistry. With the sort of repertoire that only a few years ago in other hands tended towards loudness contests, BNO audiences are now rewarded with excellent, musical performances.

Stanislav Kochanovsky © Evgeny Evtyukhov
Stanislav Kochanovsky
© Evgeny Evtyukhov

Rimsky-Korsakov may have travelled the world as a young naval officer, but he never set foot in Spain. Yet, following the example of Glinka he composed his Capriccio espagnol, a suite based on Spanish themes which he transformed into vivid orchestral spectaculars. An attractive if tricky curtain-raiser, Kochanovsky evoked Rimsky’s Russian “España” with a radiant, warm smile. The BNO initially sounded too timid for all this sunny exuberance, looking on from the side rather than really feeling and enjoying it, but the orchestra eventually found itself cosily at home someplace between St Petersburg and Asturias. Romantic cantilenas voiced by the lower strings alternated with sprightly, gypsy-tinged violin solos from orchestra leader Solenne Païdassi, violins were strummed like guitars, woodwinds competed in virtuosity and castanets added the ultimate Iberian flavour. Kochanovsky, with his elegant baton technique, made the orchestra sway and swirl, painting in brilliant colour strokes, up to the riveting finale.

Resolutely playing the modernist card with his Second Piano Concerto (1913, reworked in 1923) and enjoying the scandal it initially made, Prokofiev may have been dismayed to learn that Western critics soon classified the work somewhere midway between tradition and innovation, if not as mere old hat. No matter, a century later, it remains a stunning work and truly good performances of it can still be counted on one hand. But tonight was the night when Nikolai Lugansky took place behind the keyboard.

The daunting technical demands were turned into an asset by Lugansky. In his characteristically unassuming manner he wrapped the work in an epic sweep, bringing astonishing dexterity and clarity to all four movements. Mindful of the dynamic and tempo shifts, both cadenzas in the outer movements were dramatically integrated in the flow, just as much in its impossibly muscular passages as in its meditative moments. While the typical Prokofiev sarcasm and shouts of pain erupted in the Intermezzo, Lugansky also subtly suggested that Rachmaninov had left a mark. The Scherzo was fun and fast, if never at the expense of expressivity. The true fireworks were kept for the Allegro tempestoso, which became just as eloquent as the first movement in the bigger picture. Kochanovsky and the BNO provided attentive support. My only quibble was the overwhelmingly loud entry of the orchestra at the end of the first cadenza.

Kochanovsky’s account of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony emphasised its aristocratic elegance more than its dark or melancholic side. Of course, this symphony is constantly veering between light and darkness, and while Kochanovsky didn’t overlook this, his approach foremost reminded us of Tchaikovsky’s natural connection with the theatre. The third movement, Valse, was an obvious case in point, with its vivid staccato middle section evoking the world of the near contemporaneous Sleeping Beauty rather than adding a touch of anxiety. But the preceding movements offered plenty of theatrical lyricism to balance the sighs and worries as well. Kochanovsky sculpted the second waltz theme of the Allegro con anima with great delicacy and although I felt the horn solo in the Andante cantabile was at times too abrupt in its phrasing to fully express the conductor’s intentions, the overall feel of a symphonic movement with an operatic dimension wasn’t lost. The orchestral tutti, solidly underpinned by the disciplined brass and timpani, felt in this context totally appropriate. The final movement had plenty of drive and was exemplary in its dynamic progression.

Conducting the symphony without a baton, Kochanovsky coaxed plenty of detail from all sections, balancing the overall sound with flair. Orchestral solos were without exception commendable. The most impressive work came from the strings, amply textured under Kochanovsky’s guidance, with the massed cellos and double basses often encouraged by the conductor to give the music extra depth. Conductors do make a difference.

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