Brussels’ Palais des Beaux-Arts occupies the site where once stood the Pensionnat Héger, the school where Charlotte and Emily Brontë lived during their sojourn in the Belgian capital – an appropriate setting, as it is not difficult to imagine Bruckner’s mighty Fourth Symphony underscoring one of the sisters’ Gothic tales of unrequited love. 19th-century literary caprices aside, there was fortunately no Victorian restraint about this performance, with Walter Weller’s National Orchestra of Belgium delivering an exhilarating rendition of one of the Austrian composer's most celebrated works.

National Orchestra of Belgium
National Orchestra of Belgium

Bruckner’s towering symphony was preceded by Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto in B flat major, his first for any wind instrument. In spite of their common national heritage, Mozart and Bruckner make for unlikely bedfellows, not to mention the irony of pairing music’s most renowned prodigy with a man who was well into his sixth decade when his artistic career began to hit its stride. Mozart’s brief concerto was matched in length by the 20-minute interval which immediately followed it. Although uneven programming is often inevitable wherever Bruckner makes an appearance, a longer first half would have made for a more balanced concert.

It fell to the talented Bert Helsen to tackle this stalwart of the bassoon repertoire. Although the concerto began tentatively – the Allegro lacked vigour and Helsen’s elegant phrasing was initially lost in a string accompaniment that seemed laboured at times – the musicians overcame this lack of clarity to turn out a consummate performance, the Rondo’s mellifluous solo passages being particularly well rendered by the young bassoonist. Ultimately, this was a polished interpretation that Helsen pulled off with effortless vim.

Mozart’s concerto may have been a diverting warm-up act, but Bruckner’s seductive Fourth Symphony was the irascible diva that everyone was there to see. This is “Romantic” in its most literal High Art sense – not a soundworld evocative of mortal concerns and thwarted passions, but of Gothicism, antediluvian mystery and the fantastic. Having dedicated his Third Symphony to Wagner, it is unsurprising that its successor should be a masterclass in Austro-German hyperbole. Bruckner’s Fourth is a heady concoction of Romantic tropes – all shimmering, florid colouring and windswept string passages. Although Bruckner’s exhaustive reimagining of his original source material can, in less deft hands, make for dreary playing, the National Orchestra of Belgium’s interpretation of his complex melodic architecture was anything but. This was a performance possessed by an unrelenting momentum throughout, due largely to the strings’ deliciously physical attack of Bruckner’s signature tremolos.

The second movement, Andante quasi allegretto, was stately and serene, with some of the most effective dynamic colouring I have heard in a long time. It is a shame that the final pizzicato was not quite played in tandem, but this minor complaint did not mar an otherwise pitch-perfect lyrical set piece. Moving on to the third, it would have been easy to allow the Scherzo’s heavy-handed pastoralism to descend into cliché. However, the brass section was in fine, strident form here, elevating the formulaic “hunt” motifs from the pedestrian to the vivacious. Delivering climatic moment after climactic moment, the finale is an exhilarating succession of ebbs and flows. The musicians were visibly delighted by its frenzied juxtapositions; I have rarely seen an orchestra smile so much during a performance.

Walter Weller’s understated style of conducting belies his orchestra’s indefatigable verve. At odds with his seemingly world-weary wave of the baton, the orchestra under his guidance delivered a taut, spirited performance. You could hardly expect anything less from a conductor of his pedigree: having been at the helm of so many top orchestras, Weller’s credentials are not only impressive, his modest leadership is also an antidote to the gratuitous showmanship endemic to today’s classical landscape.

If Bruckner 4 is a beast of the symphonic canon, then the National Orchestra of Belgium knew far better than to tame it. Anything but subtle, its Romantic excesses, sentimental orchestration and lush chromaticism ought to be embraced – it is a work at its white-hot best when it is messy, electric and downright loud – Sunday’s performance was all of these, and utterly thrilling for it.

****1