The Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2019-20 season focuses on Beethoven in the run-up to the composer’s 250th birthday in December 2020. Almost every concert includes a work written by him, inspired by him or somehow related to his oeuvre. No surprise, therefore, to find a concert with the orchestra’s Chief Conductor Gabriel Feltz coupling one of Beethoven’s most performed works, the Symphony no 3 (“Eroica”) with a work that quotes from it, Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen. What I was not expecting, however, was one of the most memorable concerts I have been to and that I will remember for a long time. Everything came together: the orchestra was on top form. Feltz seems to have a great rapport with his players and has the knack of communicating with the audience. Even the acoustics of the Kolarac Hall seemed just right for this music.

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

First came Strauss’ extraordinary and unique work, composed in the final months of World War 2. The 23 solo strings played standing (except for the cellos). Although the composer did not elaborate on the meaning of the piece, it is considered a memorial to German culture that had been subverted and destroyed during the Nazi period. Feltz led the audience through the complex interweaving of themes that are transformed into one another. He controlled the ebb and flow of the music, illuminated a phrase here and emphasised a rhythmic tag there. He made every detail count. Each change in intensity and volume mattered. The playing of the strings was stunning. Were there really only 23 players, when sometimes the music seemed as rich as something from Der Rosenkavalier? Metamorphosen is a serious and contemplative work, but not gloomy or dull. Sometimes I felt that there were suggestions that perhaps there was hope that culture that was almost lost would somehow survive into the future. In the desperately sad concluding minutes of the piece I thought the answer was perhaps that it would not. Whatever the case, Feltz and the players convinced me that this was a work with something very important to say and they had communicated it to me. As the players were all soloists, they all took bows which they richly deserved.

After the interval we heard one of those cornerstones of German musical culture that was being commemorated by Strauss, Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, in a stunning performance which for me shed new light on a familiar work. What could the first audiences have made of this symphony over two hundred years ago? Anyone used to the symphonies of Mozart and Haydn, or even Beethoven’s earlier works, might have recognised that the “Eroica” came from the same tradition but went in new and unexpected directions. Perhaps some would have found it distasteful; I hope that more would have found it exciting and stimulating.

I imagine that most of the audience in Belgrade had heard the “Eroica” before, but this evening Feltz had the audience on the edge of their seats. All recollections of previous performances, whether recorded or live, were put aside. It was as if he was creating something new and gripping. By the end of the first movement we had been taken on an exhilarating journey. Along the way the conductor had highlighted some unexpected details and illuminated some features that we might otherwise have overlooked. How could that be followed? Only by Beethoven’s extraordinary funeral march, the one which Strauss quotes towards the end of Metamorphosen. Feltz’s conducting was highly expressive in what is perhaps the most intense of Beethoven’s movements. Only the central section gave a little respite; otherwise the intellectual drive inexorably led us to the end. The Scherzo brought in a contrasting joyful atmosphere with quick changes of mood and volume being expertly managed. The exposed calls of the three horns were taken fluently and commanded attention. The finale is a set of variations; here Feltz characterised them so as to help the audience appreciate the structure and follow the musical ideas that were being thrown around the orchestra, the insistent rhythms and not least the humour of the piece, all leading to a fiery conclusion.

A concert like this might demonstrate to any doubters why the German musical tradition is the core of any orchestra’s repertoire. The audience cheered and rightly so. It was an outstanding concert.