The centrepiece of the first concert in the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra’s series on the theme of "Love" was Bartók’s Violin Concerto no. 1, Sz 36. We had a stunning performance of a great work given with soloist Simone Lamsma and the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor Daniel Raiskin. Bartók wrote the concerto in 1907–08 for the woman he loved, violinist Stefi Geyer. She did not reciprocate his feelings and the work had to wait until after the death of both composer and dedicatee for its first performance in 1958, though Bartók had reused the first movement in his Two Portraits, Op.5. The concerto is considered to be a musical portrait of Geyer and is unusual in being in two movements. The programme note suggested that, while this is typical of a rhapsody, it also relates to the folk tradition of a slow song followed by a fast dance, and that this might have been closer to the composer’s thinking in using this form.

Simone Lamsma and the Belgrade Philharmonic © Marko Djokovic | Belgrade Philharmonic
Simone Lamsma and the Belgrade Philharmonic
© Marko Djokovic | Belgrade Philharmonic

The striking opening of the concerto is a slow thoughtful theme for the soloist alone, who is soon joined by another solo violin, and then more. The other violinists reflect the soloist’s theme until further instruments join in. Right from the start Lamsma captivated the audience in this introspective, dreamy music with her beautiful, intense playing, as if taking the part of Stefi as seen by the admiring composer. The second movement was quite a startling contrast. It shows a different side of Geyer’s personality: witty, joking and perhaps sometimes a little prickly. Lamsma evidently had a great rapport with the orchestra and conductor Raiskin. They seemed to be relating anecdotes, and more than once the quirky orchestration and the exchanges between soloist and orchestra made me laugh out loud. We can only guess any specific incidents that Bartók might have been thinking of. This performance brought out the humour of the second movement but the soloist and conductor ensured that this was just as focused as the more overtly romantic first. The whole concerto was deeply satisfying and beautifully played.

The remainder of the concert was devoted to three operatic love stories in the form of two overtures and a suite. The first piece on the programme was the overture to Beethoven’s Fidelio – the final version of the overture which, unlike the earlier Leonore overtures, evokes the drama and different moods of the opera without quoting actual themes from it. If there was the occasional hesitancy at the beginning of this performance, it soon disappeared.

Simone Lamsma and the Belgrade Philharmonic © Marko Djokovic | Belgrade Philharmonic
Simone Lamsma and the Belgrade Philharmonic
© Marko Djokovic | Belgrade Philharmonic

After the interval came the overture to a much less familiar opera: Weber’s Euryanthe. This early example of German Romantic opera was first performed less than a decade after the final version of Fidelio. It tells the story of the love of Count Adolar and Princess Euryanthe and how they overcome difficulties, a tale set in the Middle Ages, which at the time were being rediscovered by artists across Europe. It is considered as an important influence on Wagner and in particular on Lohengrin, but performances are few and far between as the result of an impossible libretto. Raiskin and the orchestra gave a confident and committed performance bringing out the Romantic fervour of the piece, with some fine string playing.

The final piece of the evening was the suite from Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. The opera itself was first performed in 1911 (soon after the composition of the Bartók concerto that we had heard earlier) and quickly became one of the most popular operas of the 20th century, not least because of its glorious waltzes underpinning some of the scenes. In 1944 a purely orchestral suite was first performed in New York. The history of the creation of the suite is somewhat unclear, but it is thought to have been put together by conductor Artur Rodzinski. Crucially, it brings those waltzes to the fore and, as a result, has become an orchestral favourite. Raiskin and the Belgrade Philharmonic gave a strong account of the whooping horn calls from the beginning of the suite (and the opera) and there were fine solos from all sections of the orchestra. They transported us to 18th-century Vienna as reimagined a century and a half later. They evoked some of the key scenes of the opera and notably the pompous character of Baron Ochs but it was the sumptuous waltzes that took pride of place and left the audience glowing after a heart-warming concert.

****1