Looking at the programme for last night’s concert by the National Orchestra of Belgium at BOZAR in Brussels, the format seemed familiar: a world première of a contemporary piece with a pretentious name sandwiched between two famous romantic pieces – something for the audience to put up with. But I couldn’t have been more wrong: Georgian-born, Belgian-resident Giya Kancheli’s Nu.Mu.Zu was the blow-your-socks-off highlight of the evening.

© Alison Karlin
© Alison Karlin
Nu.Mu.Zu starts with the thinnest of orchestral textures, an other-worldly legato line achieved by bowing “crotales” (a form of cymbals), above a gentle set of chords on piano. Gradually, the texture thickens out, but all in the low register. There is a huge brass section in the orchestra, but they and the low woodwinds are playing at the gentlest of pianissimi: hats off to conductor Andrey Boreyko, because it can’t be easy to keep such huge forces on such a tight leash and keep the accuracy. As this low background begins to swell, different high sounds come through cleanly over the top: flute or oboe, high strings, glockenspiel and other percussion. There are unusual pieces of instrumentation: for example, why bother with the effort of getting pizzicato double basses to sound right when you can simply include a bass guitar?

You sense that the music is going to thicken out. Kancheli keeps you waiting, but when the climax arrives, it’s immense and room-shaking. From then on, the climaxes come in great waves of sound, always returning to a period of contemplative calm, with fragments of melody passed from one instrument to the next. Kancheli is not a young man and doesn’t move so well now – it took him a fair while to arrive at the podium to take his bows – but you would never have known it from the youthful energy in the piece.

The concert started with an appeal by musicians in the orchestra for the audience to sign a petition against a proposed merger between themselves and the La Monnaie orchestra, which they consider nothing short of the disbanding of the orchestra. Whether because of this threat or in spite of it, they started the concert on fine form with a spirited rendering of the suite from Manuel de Falla’s El amor brujo. Spanish flavour came through aplenty, from the trumpet calls of the bullfight to the delicate melodic arabesques that characterise flamenco – although the broken rhythms that underpin flamenco dance were largely absent. The trumpet call in “En la cueva - la noche” was especially evocative amongst a large number of effective instrumental solos: it’s notable how much space Falla leaves in the sound field to allow individual instrumentalists to shine.

The second half of the concert was also preceded by an introduction: in this case, from conductor Andrey Boreyko, who explained that although he was familiar with Cervantes’ Don Quixote from schooldays, he realised that many in the audience would not be, and to help listeners, he wanted to play and explain some of the main themes of Richard Strauss’s “Fantastic variations” before embarking on a full performance of the work. So before the work proper started, we heard the themes for Quixote and Sancho Panza, the fight with the windmills, the bleating of Emperor Alifanfaran’s army (of sheep) and others. A break from concert etiquette, for sure, but one that was very welcome, as far as I could tell, to most of the audience.

The orchestra had the same energy, high sound quality and great individual instrumental playing as in the first half of the concert, although they did lose some coherence in the face of the complexity of Strauss’s score: Don Quixote often veers off into some polyrhythmic passages where a lot of different things are happening at the same time, and I lost the thread on more than one occasion. But the music entertained despite this: as in the Falla, this is a score that leaves a great deal of room for different instrumental colours to blaze through, and Boreyko had his orchestra beautifully balanced to take full advantage.

To this was added the joy of hearing Mischa Maisky perform the cello part. Maisky radiates warmth out of every pore and is an utterly committed performer. Even when he’s not playing, he’s totally involved with the music, his playing alternates between strong attack and gloriously smooth, weighted, sweet-toned phrasing. A lyrical encore of Saint-Saëns’s Swan from Carnival of the Animals brought this highly enjoyable concert to a satisfactory close and send us out into the chilly autumn air.