For their latest concert at the Kolarac Hall with chief conductor Gabriel Feltz, the Belgrade Philharmonic played two pieces for huge orchestra by Respighi, separated by a concerto by Bach. First came Respighi’s Vetrate di Chiesa (“Church Windows”). Why are these pleasing and interesting “symphonic impressions” not given in concert more often?

Gabriel Feltz and the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra © Marko Djokovic | Belgrade Philharmonic
Gabriel Feltz and the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra
© Marko Djokovic | Belgrade Philharmonic

The four sections of the work have titles that could be the subjects of stained glass windows, but rather than being composed to illustrate the scenes, the music was completed before the titles were added. In fact the first three “windows” originated as piano pieces, entitled Three Preludes on Gregorian Melodies. The composer orchestrated them and added a fourth section and only then, with the help of his friend Claudio Guastalla, devised the title of the whole, followed by the titles of the four movements.

The first movement is The Flight into Egypt, which is predominantly lyrical and expressive, as if the scene of the Holy Family had been depicted for posterity in a glass window. The second, Archangel Michael, is louder and faster and relates to the archangel and his fiery sword in a battle in Heaven. By contrast, The Matins of St Clare is contemplative and mysterious. St Clare was miraculously transported to a church service when she was too ill to attend. The final section was St Gregory the Great, named after Pope Gregory who was Pope from 540 to 604 and after whom Gregorian chant is named.

In places, Respighi made use of Gregorian chant to give a religious, archaic feel to the piece, but what strikes most is his glorious use of the orchestra to create a stunning kaleidoscope of colour, like light coming through a stained glass window into a church. The sweeping strings and the big climaxes left no doubt in Archangel Michael that this was a fierce, aggressive event. Other striking moments included a stunning and unexpected tam tam crash at the end of the second movement and the prominent organ solo in St Gregory which brought something of the church into the concert hall. The whole piece concluded in an affirmative burst of joy and light.

After that, something completely different: the orchestra and conductor left the stage and soloist Eric Le Sage and thirteen string players returned to give Bach’s Keyboard Concerto no. 1 in D minor, BWV 1052. We are perhaps now more used to hearing this played on the harpsichord with period instrument specialists, so hearing it on a modern concert grand piano gives a different feel. Bach’s music is capable of so many different performance styles and it always works. This concerto is thought to have originated in a violin concerto and so in this case, authenticity is a questionable concept. Eric Le Sage sat with his back to the audience (perhaps to prevent the piano overwhelming the sound of the strings) and one had the feel of chamber music being created. The interplay between orchestra and soloist was fluid and the rhythmic vitality was particularly striking in the final allegro. Only when the piano was playing alone did it sometimes feel like a Romantic concerto rather than a Baroque one.

After the interval we had more Respighi: the much more familiar Feste Romane (Roman Festivals). This is a “real” tone poem. The four movements were written to depict four scenes from the history of the city starting with an ancient gladiatorial contest in Circenses, then a religious pilgrimage for a festival which takes place every fifty years in Giubileo, a harvest festival in L’Ottobrata and finally a carnival in La Befana (Epiphany).

The fanfares that dominated the opening of the work were played from the balcony at the back of the hall, behind most of the audience, so that the music came from all directions. If the overall impression of the piece was of loud and joyful music there is still plenty of variety in the work: quiet, intense calm contrasts with the fighting in the first movement. Echoes of plainchant infuse the second and hints of traditional songs appear in the October celebrations. Respighi’s subtle use of a big orchestra is unparalleled and he can deftly evoke one mood and with a slight shift of orchestral balance move on to another.

The Belgrade Philharmonic and Gabriel Feltz evidently revelled in this glorious music. Both the Respighi pieces gave the virtuoso soloists the chance to shine. Individuals and sections were given well-deserved bows. The raucous and good humoured celebration that concluded the work made me laugh out loud. The revellers at La Befana had evidently had a little too much good Italian red wine (though it could have been Serbian rakija) and exuded bonhomie to the rest of the world. Just how we felt coming out of this concert.