Like the Brussels Philharmonic, Belgium’s national band has Anglicised its name into Belgian National Orchestra (BNO), thereby putting the confusing Dutch/French labelling happily to rest. But the real good news is that, at least judging from this concert, the BNO has become a more attractive formation, more polished, focused and committed than I can remember them. Led by their current music director, Hugh Wolff, they made a fine impression in a demanding programme which included Liszt’s Faust Symphony and a stellar performance of Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a rococo theme by Mischa Maisky.

Mischa Maisky
© Hideki Shiozawa

This concert was part of the annual Flemish broadcast happening ,the Klara Festival, offering in this edition several musical events under the banner of “Libera me!” In this search for freedom Goethe’s Faust, with its exploration of moral dilemmas and hope for redemption, figures as a recurrent theme of the festival and cast its shadow over the main course of the evening.

In the opening Erlkönig, fantasy for orchestra from Hans Werner Henze (1997), Wolff captured something of the manic drive but little of the intrinsic threat of this fascinating score. The orchestral sonority remained rather opaque and the violent outbursts too controlled to do the piece full justice.

Things were heating up however with the arrival of Mischa Maisky for the Rococo Variations. Think of an exhilarating journey animated by an expert guide who lives and enjoys every moment, yet makes you believe he is discovering it with you and isn’t afraid to tease you with some daredevil steps off the beaten track. Each variation was brimming with imagination, sometimes playful, then again seductive or poignant, with the soloist unafraid to counterbalance Tchaikovsky’s homage to the classical era with touches of grinding modernity. Maisky’s tone was powerful and penetrating, with a particularly rich lower register, but could transform into the sweetest whisper through an extraordinary gradation of dynamics. Whatever one may think of the Fitzenhagen edition of the Rococo Variations, the true genius of this performance was that it all sounded perfectly musical. The sudden outburst of the closing variation and coda taken at a hair-raising speed brought in a final surprise. It would arguably take some more performance practice to completely match soloist and orchestra, yet Wolff secured overall fine playing from the BNO, with especially the woodwinds deserving praise. As a fitting counterpoint, Maisky encored with a no less compelling reading of the Sarabande from Bach’s Cello Suite no. 5.

In Liszt’s Faust Symphony, Wolff balanced his structural grip with a keen ear for detail in the thematic development. His pacing was agreeable in all three movements, with few if any lapses of tension, and he drew enthusiastic playing from the BNO, including several superb solo contributions – notably from the first viola and first oboe. Although much attention had obviously been paid to the orchestral balance there were some issues. Perhaps due to the placement of the orchestra, with the violins massed to the left, Liszt’s complex string writing lacked depth here, while the violins easily became fierce and tended to dominate the tutti. The timpani were in good hands yet the brass, fine as they were, should ideally have been more prominent. It all left the climaxes, especially in the outer movements, somewhat on the safe side, with Mephistopheles smiling rather than ridiculing. The BNO was however at its most admirable in Gretchen’s movement, where Liszt often reduces the orchestral forces to a chamber-music scale. The woodwinds in dialogue with the front desks of the strings sections beautifully rendered the character’s innocence.

The symphony was performed in its 1857 version, with the "Chorus mysticus" apotheosis for tenor and male voices, crowning the triptych with a quote from Goethe's play and adding a spiritual dimension to the essentially human conflicts depicted in the preceding movements. It was a grand moment of release here, achieved by fervent singing from the Octopus men choir and the Austrian tenor Ilker Arcayürek. The quest for liberation couldn’t have come to a more glorious conclusion.