The Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra’s series of five concerts on the theme of “Darkness” reached its conclusion with an all-Russian programme under its Principal Guest Conductor Daniel Raiskin.

Tatjana Masurenko, Daniel Raiskin and the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra © Marko Djokovic
Tatjana Masurenko, Daniel Raiskin and the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra
© Marko Djokovic

First came a suite from Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. This opera, first performed in 1934, was based on a story by 19th-century writer Nikolai Leskov and tells a grimly realistic story in which the heroine commits several murders, is imprisoned and ultimately commits suicide. Yet the composer contrived to make her at least in part a sympathetic character as a victim of the society in which she lived. The opera was successful in Russia and internationally, until Stalin saw a performance in 1936 and denounced it as “muddle instead of music” and the work was withdrawn, not to be seen again until after Stalin’s death.

We might therefore have expected to hear something very dark indeed but we were in for a surprise. The music we heard was not the substantial suite made by American James Conlon which conveys much of the atmosphere of the opera in orchestral form, but a seven-minute three-movement suite which is Shostakovich’s opus 29a. This presented the orchestral interludes from the opera, which recalled the composer’s lighter works. There was plenty of savage humour, but humour nonetheless, with grotesque parodies, sudden changes of direction and remarkable orchestration. Taken out of the context of the opera this felt like zany circus music, joyful and exuberant. The Belgrade Philharmonic’s playing was taut and exciting, making for a spirited opening to the concert.

The second piece of the evening was Alfred Schnittke’s Viola Concerto with soloist Tatjana Masurenko. This concerto, one of the many Schnittke wrote for specific soloists, has many of the features of a 19th-century concerto but so altered that it feels dislocated from what we might expect. There are three movements and the soloist has a splendid cadenza, but the movements are slow – fast – slow, and each is longer then the preceding one. And then there is the orchestra: there are no violins. In the place where we would normally see them was a surprising quartet of harp, piano, harpsichord and celesta, resulting in an orchestral sound with a rather different quality from what we are used to.

Schnittke wrote the work for violist Yuri Bashmet who gave its first performance in 1986. He created a sombre, sparse opening solo out of the notes represented by the first five letters of the German transliteration of Bashmet’s name. Masurenko gave a hypnotising account of this remarkable opening which grew into something more lyrical when more instruments joined in. The second movement began with her playing frenetic arpeggios which led to a dazzling variety of styles and moods combining and contrasting with one another – waltzes, marches, popular tunes and dances all added to the mix leading to the cadenza and a fiercer ending to the movement. The finale (another largo) started with another substantial solo, more contemplative, reflective and darker than much of what had gone before. This atmospheric movement seemed rooted in tradition yet apart from it. The calm, quiet ending was bleak but somehow peaceful.

Shortly after completing the Viola Concerto, Schnittke suffered a serious stroke. He later wrote of the concerto being like a premonition: “The music took on the character of a restless chase through life (in the second movement) and that of a sad overview of life in the threshold of death (in the third movement).” This was dark music indeed.

The orchestra gave an important contribution to the concerto but it was the soloist who dominated. Masurenko made the most of the rich, dark timbre of her instrument. She hardly had a moment’s rest from the fierce demands that the composer placed on her. She astounded the audience with her performance.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 4 is much more familiar music but also disturbing. A fanfare associated with fate opens the symphony and pervades it thereafter. Tchaikovsky wrote to his patroness Madame Nadezhda von Meck that it referred to a force that prevents one from attaining happiness and from which there is no escape. The ending of the first movement felt particularly dark. By the end of the symphony, however, this powerful performance suggested that if Tchaikovsky had not beaten fate he had at least come to terms with it.

The Belgrade Philharmonic and Raiskin gave a compelling performance. The orchestra’s ensemble playing was superb and they gave expressive feeling to the composer’s heartfelt melodies. The pianissimos were as thrilling as the fortissimos. The pizzicato ostinato Scherzo delighted as always and the intensely expressive finale drew well-earned cheers from the audience.