The Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra’s latest concert, conducted by their former chief conductor Uroš Lajovic began with Sibelius’ remarkable evocation of the sea, The Oceanides. In it, the sea is calm at first as the playful sea nymphs of the title emerge (depicted by flutes). The waves get more turbulent as the lower instruments of the orchestra predominate and the sea becomes stormy, until the waves subside and the sea is returned to the sea nymphs. Lajovic brought out the ever-changing colours of the score though occasionally the performance seemed a little tentative and more contrast between the calm and the storm, the loud and the quiet, might have been welcome.

Alban Gerhardt © Kaupo Kikkas
Alban Gerhardt
© Kaupo Kikkas

No such reservations could be felt in respect of the performance by Alban Gerhardt and the orchestra of Martinů’s Cello Concerto no. 1. This was a first-rate of interpretation in all respects. Martinů was a very prolific composer whose music is interesting and approachable and whose oeuvre covers most genres, including several concertos for various instruments, but few of his works get frequent performances. Judging by this performance this is a great shame. Surely the first cello concerto deserves a regular place alongside the greats of the repertoire. How much of the personal and political turmoil that affected the composer between the first version of 1930 and the final, definitive one of 1955 is reflected in the score is impossible to know, but it is a piece in turn peaceful and tormented, calm and anguished.

This concerto is very much a virtuoso showpiece. The orchestra has an important role but the centre of attention throughout was Gerhardt and he brought the piece off with verve, leading us through all manner of emotions. The first movement began with an energetic rhythmic theme in the orchestra which was quickly taken up by the soloist, and this set the tone for what was to follow, with suggestions of the Baroque concerto grosso, Neoclassicism, hints of Jazz with a layer of Gallic sophistication. On the other hand lyrical Romanticism and Czech folk music as reflected in the music of Dvořák and Smetana were never far away, and these disparate elements came together in Martinů’s distinctive individual sound world. The Belgrade Philharmonic played with vigour and aplomb but it was the soloist who was always in the limelight. Gerhardt met the technical challenges of his many solos and dazzled the audience. His rapport with the orchestra was clear throughout.

The second movement began with a change of mood: rhapsodic, calm and peaceful, always led by Gerhardt who then had an intense cadenza, but in the course of his solo something changed very gradually. The atmosphere became more anguished and disturbed. When the orchestra returned it gave Gerhard a little respite before a return to the earlier lyrical mood, but in the context of the preceding turmoil it now seemed more profound and the conclusion, though calm, seemed resigned rather than peaceful. Inevitably Shostakovich came to mind.

In the concluding Allegro the rhythmic drive was to the fore. The rapport between soloist and orchestra was again evident: Gerhardt could be seen exchanging looks with the orchestral players, nodding along with the rhythms of the orchestra and smiling broadly. He seemed to be enjoying it as much as the audience. He had another substantial solo and a calmer romantic episode followed, before a dramatic conclusion. Gerhard generously acknowledged the contribution of the orchestra, even joining the orchestral cellos in the second half of the concert.

If the orchestra had taken a secondary role in the concerto they made up for this after the interval. The second half of the concert was devoted to eight excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Lajovic conducted an intense, beautiful performance of this wonderful Romantic music. The strings glowed with power and intensity. Individual contributions from orchestral players were atmospheric and precisely judged, notably the harp and violin in the fourth excerpt (“Scene”) and the trumpet in the seventh (“Neapolitan Dance”). The chosen extracts from the ballet included the dramatic and the picturesque and highlighted the variety of Tchaikovsky’s score. However familiar they are, the melodies cannot fail to delight, especially in such a polished performance as this. I might have preferred something more intense to conclude rather than the “Mazurka” but that is a minor quibble. Lajovic and the orchestra gave us a repeat of the “Dance of the Swans”  as a delightful encore to bring an evening of glorious music-making to a close.