Review: Brussels Phil impressive in effervescent and weighty Ottawa debut

Stéphane Denève conducted the Brussels Philharmonic at the NAC on Saturday. Photo: Wouter Van Vaerenbergh, courtesy Brussels Philharmonic

The Brussels Philharmonic kicked off a North American tour Saturday night with its Ottawa debut at the NAC. On the surface, the two capitals have plenty in common. Like Ottawa, Brussels has a reputation as a pleasant but somewhat dull government town. Both cities promote a bilingual culture, in theory if not always in practice. And both have their signature sweet, doughy pastry (call me unpatriotic, but I’ll take a Belgian waffle over a BeaverTail any day).

At home, the Brussels Phil is known for championing new music. But for its Ottawa appearance, musical director Stéphane Denève presented a conventionally continental program — “safe” new work (Guillaume Connesson’s 2012 composition Flammenschrift), popular concerto (the Beethoven violin), and large symphonic piece (Denève’s own compilation of movements plucked from the various Romeo and Juliet Suites of Prokofiev). It was a smart, if conservative, calculation. Southam Hall was nearly full, and if most people came for a comfortable, familiar, Old World symphonic experience, they weren’t disappointed.

The orchestra’s sound is a peculiar hybrid of French effervescence and German weight. At home they play in the generous acoustics of Place Flagey in Brussels, and in assorted centuries-old churches and exquisite halls across Belgium and in other European cities. Southam Hall certainly challenged the musicians; in general, attacks and cutoffs could have been sharper and more aggressive for the space, and some soloists and sections did not project as much as they needed to. In particular, Concertmaster Otto Derolez’ solos in the Prokofiev were barely audible.

But these are quibbles; on the whole, the orchestra was impressive, beginning with Flammenschrift, a sort of pastiche that quotes and paraphrases Beethoven, Brahms and Richard Strauss. It’s a bombastic pleaser, highly melodic but fast and furious from beginning to end, except for a more serene middle section that to me suggested the languorous winds of Après-midi d’un faune.

Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider was the soloist in the Beethoven, playing the refined “Kreisler” Guarneri del Gesu. Like John Storgårds and Pinchas Zukerman, Znaider enjoys a double career as a violinist and conductor, and actually led NACO in a concert in 2016 with French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet in 2016. The concerto’s first movement drifted by at an extraordinarily relaxed, leisurely tempo; Znaider was at times even slightly ahead of Denève and the orchestra, who seemed to struggle to maintain their impulsion and focus. Znaider’s playing is as smooth and sumptuous as buttercream, but this was the drowsiest, least energized Beethoven violin concerto I’ve ever heard: broad, beautiful, but with nary a moment of tension, suspense or drama. Even the rondo failed to ignite, the final notes landing with a soft thud instead of a kaboom. Znaider offered a romantic, unwaveringly legato reading of the Sarabande from Bach’s D minor Partita as an encore.

Happily, the Prokofiev held more thrills. Prokofiev compiled three different orchestral suites from his ballet music for Romeo and Juliet; since each suite was missing some key movements, Denève cobbled one together his own, to include as many highlights from the complete score as possible. Denève conducted as if watching a film of the ballet in his mind’s eye, ever conscious of the dance and the tragic narrative that are built into the score’s bones. The playing was full of grandeur and lyricism, with crystalline counterpoint from the strings and rich, glowing colour from the brass and woodwinds.

Sweet music on this chocolate violin. Photo: Natasha Gauthier

As an encore, the orchestra played the vivacious Farandole from Bizet’s l’Arlésienne Suite — complete with a Basque hand drum, rarely seen in these parts.

The extremely personable Denève, who looks like a 19th-century caricature of a maestro, made a point of thanking the audience profusely in both languages. At that point, the Belgian ambassador appeared on stage, wheeling a trolley bearing a gift: a full-scale replica of a violin made from the finest Belgian chocolate. It was a sweet sendoff to an evening of sheer musical gourmandise.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.