To read about György Ligeti’s 1961 composition Atmosphères can be alarming. We learn of the absence of rhythm, harmony and melody, and the presence of tone clusters, in which several consecutive notes of a scale are played simultaneously. We try to understand such daunting concepts as micropolyphony and musical permeability. And yet to hear such a polished and committed live performance of the work as the one that opened the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra’s latest concert is a stimulating, intriguing and pleasing experience. The sounds that might have been novel at the work’s first performance have become familiar in effects and background music to cinema and TV (and indeed Ligeti’s greatest moment of fame came when Atmosphères was used in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey). Slovenian conductor Uroš Lajovic, former principal conductor, brought out the shimmering colours of this weird and wonderful piece. At about 10 minutes long it just felt too short.

Xavier de Maistre and the Belgrade Philharmonic © Marko Djokovic | Belgrade Philharmonic
Xavier de Maistre and the Belgrade Philharmonic
© Marko Djokovic | Belgrade Philharmonic

A much reduced orchestra was joined by French harpist Xavier de Maistre for a performance of a concerto much more familiar in its original version for guitar and orchestra: Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. Rodrigo made this version of his most popular composition for Spanish harpist Nicanor Zabaleta in 1974. It was exciting to see the harp at the front of the stage for once. Like the guitar, the harp has a distinctive and beautiful sound. Neither instrument is very loud and Rodrigo’s instrumentation ensures that the soloist is never overwhelmed. The gentle timbre of the harp created a somewhat different atmosphere from the original. This came to the fore in the second movement cadenza where de Maistre dazzled the audience with his virtuosity. The languorous melodies of the second movement are a musical evocation of Spain in which individual orchestral players often combine with the soloist, contrasting with the more vigorous opening movement. De Maistre confidently led the proceedings in the dance-like finale, beautifully conjuring up the atmosphere of the 16th-century Palace of Aranjuez and its gardens. He then treated us to two appropriate encores which enhanced the evocation of Spain and both referenced the guitar: Falla’s Spanish Dance no. 1 and Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra.

If Byron’s Manfred is the archetypal Romantic anti-hero who better than Tchaikovsky to portray him in music? And yet, at least until recently, the Manfred Symphony has been considered one of his weaker works and has not been performed nearly as often as his numbered symphonies. The Belgrade Philharmonic’s performance gave us the opportunity to decide for ourselves and I was won over.

The first movement opens with a dramatic, heartfelt melody for which Lajovic elicited impassioned playing from the orchestra. We were with the solitary hero in the Alps, raging against the world. This contrasted with brooding, introspective writing with Manfred contemplating past misdeeds and his lost beloved, Astarte. Climaxes were thrilling. A motto reappeared in subsequent movements, giving added coherence to the whole.

The lighter textures of the second movement gave the woodwinds chance to sparkle. Here Manfred encounters the Alpine Fairy appearing in the spray from a waterfall. The third movement is a pastoral scene with a huntsman and country dancing but it is no mere interlude. Lajovic brought out the lilting, lyrical side of the score.

The finale has sometimes been described as the weakest part of the symphony but in this performance no such reservations arose. This underworld scene was dynamic and exciting with committed playing. There were remarkable anticipations of Shostakovich in places – I have rarely heard tambourines sound so menacing. The stabbing chords towards the end were both accurate and overwhelming. By the end of the symphony and the death of Manfred, Lajovic and the orchestra had taken us on a remarkable journey through a gripping Romantic tale.

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