The Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra and Stéphane Denève in Beethoven, Guillaume Connesson and Respighi

brussels-philharmonicBrussels Philharmonic Orchestra (above, picture courtesy of Samsung)

Richard Whitehouse on a visit from the Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra and their chief conductor to the Cadogan Hall, offering a rare chance to hear the music of Guillaume Connesson.

Cadogan Hall, Thursday 29 September 2016

Beethoven Symphony No. 6 ‘Pastoral’ (1808)

Connesson Flammenschrift (Letters of Fire) (2012); E chiaro nella valle il fiume appare (And clear in the valley the river appears) (2015)

Respighi Pini di Roma (1924)

Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra / Stéphane Denève

This evening’s concert brought a welcome visit from the Brussels Philharmonic and current music director Stéphane Denève, his advocacy of new music evident in the inclusion of two recent pieces by Guillaume Connesson which were performed on either side of the interval.

Now in his mid-40s, this French composer conjures a wide range of influences from François Couperin, via Wagner and Strauss, to Dutilleux and the film music of Bernard Herrmann and John Williams (a pity the programme book included no biography either of Connesson or the orchestra – while being dominated by an absorbing if, in context, overly detailed note on the Beethoven).

These pieces are the first two parts of a symphonic trilogy, with Flammenschrift both an evocation of Beethoven and a tribute to the ‘golden age’ of Germanic music. Strauss does indeed make a fleeting appearance during the more lyrical central episode; otherwise, it is the incisive neo-classicism of Honegger that comes most readily to mind, with the relentless rhythmic drive generating an impetus maintained right through to the effervescent final pages.

Taking its title from lines by the early nineteenth-century poet Giacomo Leopardi, E chiaro nelle valle il fiume appare is ostensibly the slow movement of this sequence – its alternately ethereal and passionate manner recalling the later music of Roussel (notably the Adagio from the Third Symphony), with Connesson proving hardly less adept in controlling the expressive momentum of music such as borders on without quite spilling over into overkill. Presumably the questioning tone on which it ends is answered by Maslenitsa, the final part of this trilogy.

Make no mistake, Connesson is a composer in which formal security is allied to an orchestral sense of considerable flamboyance. Interesting that, along with older contemporaries such as Nicolas Bacri, he should draw inspiration from an earlier era of French music – bypassing the serial complexity of Boulez or the harmonic intricacy of Grisey or Murail. Accessible without being facile, his music may yet gain regular hearings here, and there could be no doubting the conviction with which orchestra and conductor presented it to tonight’s appreciative audience.

Nor was the Brussels orchestra found wanting in the familiar works which opened and closed proceedings. A viable first half in itself, Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony did not fit into its present context: Denève secured a fluent if rarely insightful reading, as its best in an animated take on the first movement and appealingly jaunty scherzo, but there was a lack of inwardness and repose elsewhere; while an almost complete absence of vibrato from the strings gave their playing an unyielding quality emphasized by the forward ambience of the Cadogan acoustic.

More successful overall was Respighi’s Pines of Rome, the second and most enduring part of a ‘Roman triptych’ by which he remains best known to posterity. Denève found humour amid the frenzy of the ‘Villa borghese’ then drama in the sombre musings ‘near a Catacomb’. The sensuousness of the ‘Janiculum’ saw an amusing cameo from the percussionist operating the gramophone record of a nightingale, whereas the crescendo of the ‘Appian Way’ brought a frisson of excitement abetted by offstage brass and organ that fairly brought the house down.

The Brussels Philharmonic performs the final part of Connesson’s trilogy on 9 April, 2017. Further details at the Cadogan Hall website

Meanwhile further information on the Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra can be found from their website