The heart of the Belgrade Philharmonic’s latest concert, under Principal Guest Conductor Daniel Raiskin, was a powerful performance of Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in A minor. The orchestra played with the skill and sensitivity that Belgrade audiences are accustomed to, but one hardly noticed. This concerto belongs to the soloist and Russian violinist Andrey Baranov duly dominated proceedings.

Andrey Baranov, Daniel Raiskin and the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra
© Marko Djokovic | Belgrade Philharmonic

Each of the four movements has a rather different character, and Baranov was equally at home in each but shaped them all into a coherent, tragic, whole. He started the concerto with a long brooding, melancholy line which gripped the audience. He was accompanied at first by quiet, low strings alone; other instruments then joined in and the whole rose to an impassioned climax and returned to a quiet conclusion. The soloist hardly had a moment’s pause in this intense, sinister nocturne. He created a tense atmosphere of darkness lurking in the shadows and by the end we felt drained. The ending of the movement was more resignation than rest.

The Scherzo gave Baranov a different set of challenges. In place of the lyrical, reflective lines of the first movement, he engaged in harsh, angular utterances, sometimes sparring aggressively with the woodwinds. The “DSCH” motto (a musical transcription of the German transliteration of the composer’s initials) appeared: there was evidently something very personal here. The movement was just as compelling as the nocturne but expressed by means of Shostakovich’s characteristically grim humour. The end of the movement was more lyrical but still disturbing and uneasy.

The following Passacaglia was another contrast and now Baranov’s sweet-toned, melodious playing came to the fore. The movement was desperately sad and disturbing. In some concertos, a cadenza gives soloists their first opportunity to be the real centre of attention. Shostakovich’s has the violinist prominent from the very first notes but the composer now gives him a substantial cadenza which Baranov brought off with technical virtuosity and intense feeling. The “DSCH” motif appeared again. The music became ever more agitated until it erupted into the dizzying ”burlesque” finale.

Baranov returned to the stage and gave two encores. We had a dazzling performance of Eugène Ysaÿe’s Sonata-Ballade, a demanding virtuoso solo which seems to inhabit an intense and disturbed world related to the Shostakovich. Then the Sarabande from Bach’s Partita no. 1 finally reduced the intensity and introduced some peace and calm before the interval.

The concert had begun with Beethoven’s early concert aria Ah! perfido, sung by Serbian soprano Aneta Ilić, The text has a woman, perhaps a tragic heroine from Ancient Greece, expressing a gamut of emotions in respect of the lover who has abandoned her. Ilić’s performance had moments of power and beauty – striking when flowing with the full orchestra, sweet in some of the gentler moments – but there were times when her vibrato was unsettling and more subtlety would have been welcome.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony, often known as the “Polish”. Raiskin and the orchestra made much of the quiet opening and the grand march in the first movement which sounds as if it could have come from a ballet score. Later on we had some fine solo contributions such as the flute in the third movement and some very expressive string playing. And yet it seemed that the material in general was not as strong as that in the composer’s other symphonies, perhaps accounting for the fact that it is his least performed symphony. Or was it just that it is hard to follow something as powerful as the Shostakovich?