The Brussels Philharmonic and their music director Stéphane Denève seem to be on a high. They just completed their first North-American tour with success and now, back in Belgium, resume with a splendid tribute to Sergei Rachmaninov. More than just an homage though, this concert was testimony to both the quality of music-making the Brussels Phil has reached and the mutual trust that developed between orchestra and conductor. To introduce the concert maestro Denève, in his delightful Gallic English, paraphrased Rachmaninov when asked how to define music: “Music comes straight from the heart and talks only to the heart: it is love!” And this concert was exactly that.

Nikolai Lugansky
© Marco Borggreve

One of the assets of their concerts is that they aim to give accessible contemporary creations a wider audience. On this occasion the Nocturne for orchestra from the young Canadian composer and conductor Samy Moussa (2014) proved a real ear-opener. Commissioned by Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Nocturne may initially strike by its simplicity – a single basic (slow) tempo and a single theme – but reveals in a mere 12 minutes a supremely confident handling of a large orchestra. Written with the acoustics of the new Maison Symphonique de Montréal in mind, Moussa’s orchestral groups play unison to create a massively rich sonority. Nocturne may not be your dreamlike, moonlit summer night stroll, but quite a grim-visaged journey, threateningly dark with the occasional shaft of light piercing through in powerful, sonorous tutti. The theme reappears in waves covering a vast dynamic range and array of colour. The sudden entrance of staccato winds above muted low brass and tremolo strings was pure magic. Performed with vigour and utter conviction, this was another compelling Belgian premiere courtesy of the Brussels Philharmonic.

But of course, this was Rachmaninov’s evening and in this respect we were spoiled with magnificent readings of both his First Piano Concerto and his Third Symphony. Composed while still a student but drastically revised in 1917, the F sharp minor concerto may not share the fame of Nos. 2 and 3, but can be just as exciting when done as well as here. Nikolai Lugansky evidently knows his Rachmaninov and feels as much at home in the bravura passages as in the introspective moments. Don’t let his composed stage attitude fool you, as he played with thrilling intensity and fierce conviction, including an impressively shaped cadenza in the first movement. There’s depth to everything Lugansky does and his beautiful piano sound allowed him to bring Rachmaninov’s trademark melodies with simple unaffectedness, making them all the more involving, and nowhere more so as in the slow movement – a true romantic nocturne – where both soloist and conductor conjured a hauntingly beautiful mood. The Brussels Philharmonic gave characterful support, or when needed, took over the energetic lead. Greeted with a standing ovation, Lugansky offered an equally enchanting performance of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G sharp minor, Op.32, no. 12 as an encore.

A superb rendition of Rachmaninov’s Symphony no. 3 in A minor completed the evening. This is eventful music, some of Rachmaninov’s best with hardly a superfluous note, yet Denève made every bar count. A strong structural grip offset his attention to detail, allowing the music to develop with a powerful sweep but always underpinned by a dazzlingly colourful sonority, which reminded here more than once of Rachmaninov’s French colleagues. The textural transparency that Denève obtained from his orchestra was extraordinary. In the pianissimo opening of the symphony where usually only the horn is heard, clarinets and solo cello were clearly audible as well. The Brussels Philharmonic was in outstanding form. Exquisite woodwinds blended with lush strings, vibrant brass and punchy percussion added an edge of excitement. The solos from the principals were impressive, but none more so than first horn Hans van der Zanden, who revelled in the spotlight in all three works.

Denève handled the agitated sections in all three movements with spirit and precision, offering plenty of contrast with the surrounding romantic themes. He omitted the first movement’s exposition repeat, as if not to compromise the dramatic momentum. The Scherzo section in the second movement contrasted wit with menace in extremely vivid playing, muscular in its climaxes, while the abrupt reintroduction of the adagio was a moment of heart-stopping beauty. In short, this was fabulous music-making and it came from the heart.