The spirit of Beethoven was never far away in the latest concert from the Belgrade Philharmonic even if none of his compositions were on the programme. The first piece was the Concerto for Orchestra by Canadian–Serbian composer Ana Sokolović. It was first performed in 2007 by the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, which commissioned it, in a concert along with works by Beethoven and Rossini, two composers who inspired her. Tonight’s programme note quoted Sokolović’s own notes about the work which gave us some helpful guidance. She refers to the duality between serious and entertaining music and between music with emotion and cheap pathos. She states that she had tried to find a middle ground. Perhaps most significantly she says that she aimed to share with the audience the pleasure that music brings to her. 

Nenad Janković and Ognjen Popović play Stamitz
© Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra

Lofty aims, but did she succeed? To my ears, yes. The piece, in a classic slow-fast-slow structure, was full of contrasts and intriguing sounds. In the first part there were many tantalising snatches of melody which I felt I almost recognised but which had vanished before I could grasp them. The remarkable middle section was underpinned by an insistent timpani beat. High strings contrasted with growling low notes, punctuated by silences before the piece exploded into the varying rhythms and dynamics of the finale. I would be very happy to hear the piece again. Remarkably, the orchestra and conductor Felix Mildenberger gave such a fluent, nuanced performance that one would have imagined that it was a core piece of their repertoire.

Next came another rarity: the Concerto for clarinet, bassoon in B flat major by Carl Stamitz, a hugely prolific composer and performer of the classical period. He was once even accompanied by a 12-year-old Beethoven. In this concerto, Stamitz delighted in the contrasting timbres of the two solo instruments and created a charming and tuneful work. Our soloists were principals from the orchestra, Ognjen Popović (clarinet) and Nenad Janković (bassoon). The rapport between the two was obvious and they clearly enjoyed their evening in the limelight. They made the most of their many solos (together and individually), displaying their virtuosity in a cheerful, understated way. Meanwhile Mildenberger kept a light touch in the orchestra, providing a restrained support to the soloists. The humour of the concerto was evident throughout, nowhere more than in the rondo finale. Our soloists managed to play with our expectations in their episodes, ushering in the rondo theme, and this bouncy recurring melody was enough to bring a smile to the faces of audience and orchestra alike. The local stars received an enthusiastic reception and they rewarded us with a version of Winter from Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, arranged by another member of the orchestra.

The second half of the concert was much more familiar fare: Brahms’s Symphony no. 1 in C minor. Brahms worked for over twenty years on his First, labouring in the shadow of Beethoven’s formidable reputation. It has become such a much-loved repertory staple that it can suffer from routine performances, but there was no such problem tonight. Mildenberger shaped a performance that was full of energy and drive, stormy and turbulent where necessary as in the first movement, relaxed and good-humoured at other times as in the third. Changes in dynamics and tempo contributed to an exciting account. The solos from members of the orchestra were very fine, especially the glorious horn tune in the finale. As ever, I was impressed by the quality of the string playing of the Belgrade Philharmonic. The grand melody in the finale brought us to an exciting conclusion of a fine concert.