The Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra continued its exploration of the works of Beethoven with a performance of his Symphony no. 1 in C major in a programme with a contrasting work written some 30 years later: Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique.

First came the Beethoven. Surely his first symphony is one of the most purely enjoyable pieces that he wrote. It is clearly based in the world of Haydn, Mozart and their contemporaries but it is as if Beethoven takes the somewhat genteel classical symphony out of the formal world where it grew up into the countryside and injects it with boisterous, open-air vigour. Tonight’s conductor Marc Piollet made the most of the contrasts in style in a characterful interpretation. The opening sounded grander than it sometimes does. The strings were smooth and the woodwind delighted with their significant role. In the second movement we really felt that groups of instruments were talking to each other, exchanging views in a good-humoured and lively manner. The bouncing rhythms teased and entertained. The third movement is designated a minuet but is more a lively scherzo than a stately dance. Piollet highlighted the unexpected accents and emphasised the movement’s exuberant feel. The finale’s hesitant opening quickly gave way to some of Beethoven’s most cheerful music. Again, Piollet managed to highlight the classical poise of some parts and the cheerful energy of others. The tension between the two made a strong impression.

This was a performance to savour. Throughout the symphony there was an emphasis on its inherent humour. One felt that Beethoven was creating something new, shaping the established symphonic form into something personal, but without taking himself too seriously. At the end I was smiling broadly and there were plenty of smiles in the orchestra, too.

The Symphonie fantastique is different. Berlioz vastly increased the size of the orchestra and virtually created a new genre, the programme symphony. The orchestra depicts the young artist (really the composer himself) in love with an ideal woman. They are seen at a ball and in the countryside, but, in despair at her lack of response, he poisons himself with opium, dreams that he has killed her and is to be executed, and ultimately he dreams he is present at a witches’ sabbath. All this is expressed with great intensity; it placed feeling above all else; there is no irony or humour such as one might find in Beethoven.

The Belgrade Philharmonic and Piollet brought out the intensity of feeling with some very beautiful playing. Berlioz may use a very large orchestra but he does so with great subtlety and there are many significant solos that require expert attention – which they received. Perhaps the highlight of the performance was the ball scene. The two harps glittered and the strings were at their smoothest in the waltz tune showed the artist at his happiest until his doubts arise and the melody is distorted and undermined. Other particularly striking details were the first appearance of the idée fixe, the motif representing the beloved which recurs in different forms and in different instrumental guises. The oboe and cor anglais contributed to a very pastoral Scène aux champs until inevitably the atmosphere became more agitated and a thunderstorm represented by quiet timpani loomed. The mysterious effects from the violins in the concluding Witches’ Sabbath movement and the novel use of bells and tubas got fine performances from the players. Throughout the symphony, Piollet marshalled the surges of intensity and created a feverishly intense experience with the orchestra.