There was standing room only for the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra’s latest concert which was conducted by eminent Romanian Cristian Mandeal and in which the orchestra’s principal double bass player was the soloist.

Cristian Mandeal and the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra © Marko Djokovic | Belgrade Philharmonic
Cristian Mandeal and the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra
© Marko Djokovic | Belgrade Philharmonic

First on the programme was Mozart’s Serenata notturna, a curious three-movement piece in which a string quartet is contrasted with a larger body of strings plus timpani thus looking back at the Baroque concerto grosso. It was written as background music for a special occasion in 1776, although it is not certain which but to judge by the music it must have been a very enjoyable event. This performance was perhaps more in the tradition of the Romantic view of Mozart than the original instrument style, but Mandeal, the solo quartet and the orchestra entered into the spirit of the piece, especially in the lively Rondo finale with its catchy recurring tune.

Concertos for double bass are a rarity nowadays but this was not the case in the late 18th century when technical developments were being made to the instrument and composers were experimenting with its possibilities. One such composer was the Czech Johann Baptist Vanhal – a prolific writer of symphonies, chamber music and choral music but whose oeuvre has been vastly overshadowed by his contemporaries, Mozart and Haydn. Filip Savić, fresh from playing the double bass part in the Serenata Notturna, returned to the stage as soloist in Vanhal’s Double Bass Concerto in D major along with wind playerys in a classical-sized orchestra. It was rewarding to hear the rich, mellow sound of an instrument whose contribution is usually within the body of the orchestra. The first movement in particular gave Savić the opportunity to show the contrast between its higher and lower registers. In his cadenzas he showed virtuoso playing.

In the long lyrical lines of the Adagio second movement he revealed the beauty of sound of his instrument. In the spirited finale both Savić and the orchestra exuded stylish joie de vivre. This was very much a concerto in which the soloist was the star and the orchestra provided the accompaniment, but Mandeal did a fine job in ensuring that the orchestra kept in the background where necessary not to overwhelm the soloist. All in all this was a hugely enjoyable performance of a little-known work.

The second half of the concert was devoted to one of the most frequently played and best loved of all symphonies, Dvořák’s Symphony no. 9 in E minor "From the New World". However often we may have heard it, it is one of those eternally fresh pieces which always seems to have something to say and seems to energise performers and audiences alike. For those of us used to hearing 19th-century symphonies in large halls – the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester in my case – it can come as something of a surprise to hear such a familiar work in a much smaller venue and I was astonished by the sheer volume and power of the symphony in the relatively small Kolarac Hall, especially after the classical poise of the first half or the concert.

The stabbing chords near the beginning were arresting and the finale was thrilling. The rhythmic energy of the third movement with its busy triangle part was particularly striking. That is not to say that this was in any way a blustering performance: Mandeal brought out the expressive side of the score and the wind players gave some fine contributions, including the exquisite cor anglais solo in the second movement. Mandeal and the orchestra evoked Dvořák’s nostalgia for his homeland mingled with his appreciation of his temporary home in America in this favourite symphony.

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