Beethoven, Bruch and Mussorgsky in Brussels

Bozar, Brussels, Sunday September 2 2018

Conductor: Alain Altinoglu. Piano: Katia and Marielle Labèque. Orchestre Symphonique de La Monnaie.
  • Beethoven: Coriolan Overture, Op. 62
  • Bruch: Concerto for Two Pianos, Op. 88a
  • Mussorgsky/Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition.
[Encore - Glass: Four Movements for Two Pianos, IV]

Bozar in Brussels
The Sunday matinée subscription I have had for over 25 years in Brussels is a set menu: you pays your money and you gets no choice. And as La Monnaie usually offers interesting seasons and good productions with very decent teams of singers, that's fine.

I was surprised, though, not to say a bit miffed, to find my first "opera" of the season would be an orchestral concert. It wasn't a programme that would have caught my eye in Paris, even if Cleveland or Dresden were coming to play it, let alone La Monnaie's pit band. But I supposed the house needed to save money after the presumably costly plastic-tent fiasco a couple of years back. Making the best of a what looked like bad job, along I went, thinking that, at least, it was a nice "old-fashioned" concert with an overture, a concerto and an orchestral suite, and that it would be a chance to hear something I'd never heard before: Bruch's Concerto for Two Pianos.

In the end, it wasn't a bad job at all. On the contrary, it was so good that by the end I was wondering - and I was not alone, as post-concert chats confirmed - if La Monnaie had deliberately wanted to wow us with a pre-season display saying: "Just look what Alain Altinoglu has done with our orchestra!" The playing was firm, forthright, vigorous and together. This last point was crucial, and vividly demonstrated in the overture and the Pictures, which both involve loud chords followed by loud silences. The chords were solid blocks and the silences were just as impressive. The Bozar's super acoustics, warm but clear, would have allowed for a wider dynamic range - Altinoglu could have gone for more daring pianissimi. Perhaps now that the firmness, forthrightness and vigour are there, he will work with the orchestra some more on subtlety.

If Bruch's Violin Concerto is still a concert standard (is it?), there's no reason why his Concerto for Two Pianos shouldn't now be as well (since it was brought back to life in 1973: its curious history is worth looking up on Wikipedia), except that it means wheeling in two Steinways and paying an extra player. It's a solid late romantic work, probably old-fashioned already at the date of its composition, that could easily take its place alongside the Brahms, Grieg, Saint-Saëns and other favourites. And probably no two piano players could be better in synch than the near-twin (though not twins) Labèque sisters, in the concerto, which they have recorded with Bychkov, and in their equally thrilling Glass encore.

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