The first half of the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra’s latest concert consisted of two favourites of audiences across the world. First the Overture to Smetana’s The Bartered Bride. Under conductor Fabrice Bollon it fizzed and danced along with infectious energy and showed off the fine playing of the orchestra. It was over all too quickly, leaving us wanting more.

Antti Siirala, Fabrice Bollon and the Belgrade Philharmonic
© Belgrade Philharmonic | Marko Djokovic

In the opera house, it would have been the rest of Smetana’s most performed opera; at the Kolarac Hall, it was Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor with Finnish pianist Antti Siirala. This has become one of the most popular of all piano concertos and it is easy to see why. The magic in Grieg’s writing makes it always fresh and exciting, no matter how many times we have heard it. The opening dramatic flourish established a fine partnership between soloist and orchestra. Siirala led proceedings and could transform the mood from relaxed to tense and back again as required. His virtuoso first movement cadenza dazzled the audience. The second movement was predominantly slow with dreamy melodies, just what we have come to expect of a romantic piano concerto. It was not a mere solo performance though. The Belgrade Philharmonic provided outstanding support for Siirala and give him the opportunity to shine. The third movement brought livelier folk-related melodies and a brighter atmosphere. Siirala took all the work’s difficulties in his stride and brought us to a rousing conclusion – a very satisfying performance of an ever-popular concerto. Siirala rewarded us with a prelude by Rachmaninov as an encore.

After the interval came something much less familiar. Bollon and the orchestra gave us a rare performance of Schoenberg’s early tone poem Pelleas und Melisande. Maurice Maeterlink’s play premiered in 1893, taking Europe by storm. His “Symbolist fairy tale” concentrated on atmosphere and hints of feelings rather than dramatic events. It was very much of its time and lives on now thanks to the musical responses of four major composers: Debussy turned it into an opera; Fauré and Sibelius wrote incidental music for stage performances. Schoenberg’s response was a massive orchestral work lasting about 45 minutes. If Debussy and Fauré responded to the play with reserve and delicate orchestration, Schoenberg did the opposite. He was already taking the post-Wagnerian German tradition to extremes and uses a huge orchestra to create an extremely intense – and often loud – score.

Bollon made the most of this dense, expressive music and brought out the long meandering melodies, the varying atmospheres and the thundering, screaming climaxes. It became a showpiece for the large orchestra (which filled the stage of the Kolarac Hall) with many fine solos and some remarkable effects including expressive oboe solos and menacing brass. Whenever a more conventional melody emerged from the mix, it was quite striking as it was unexpected. 

Alban Berg analysed the work in terms of a four movement symphony, which is perhaps more helpful than any attempt to follow the story of Melisande, her husband Golaud and the latter’s brother Pelleas, with whom Melisande falls in love. Despite the presence of leitmotifs to represent characters and events I found myself lost when it came to the plot. On the other hand, by giving in to the music and letting myself be swept along by it I found this a very powerful performance evoking strong impressions. 

Congratulations to the Belgrade Philharmonic for giving us the rare opportunity to experience this remarkable late romantic piece whose notorious composer would soon be taking music in a completely new and controversial direction, and to Fabrice Bollon for ensuring that the performance was such a convincing one.