Hong Kong Philharmonic – 27 Feb

Turandot Suite (excerpts)
Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor, K466
Dragon Wings No.4 *
Symphony No.6 in D, Op.60

Helen Huang (piano)

Lung Heung-wing & Mark Lung (percussion) *

Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra
Samuel Wong

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 27 February, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Rather than leave the best to last, the Hong Kong Philharmonic started with it. Conversely, the encore, Brahms’s first Hungarian Dance (one of three the composer himself orchestrated), in a tediously exaggerated rendition, might have been more convincing with greater vibrancy. That was the story of the evening.

In recent years, the HKPO has acquired an international reputation, largely through recordings with David Atherton (now Conductor Laureate); Samuel Wong is maintaining the orchestra’s refinement and commitment. Three of Busoni’s eight movements introduced the orchestra’s personable woodwinds, warm strings and integrated brass. Busoni’s orientalisms are always musically stated and were done proud by Wong, whether in deft interplay, atmosphere or closing rumbustiousness; the pinpoint of mysterious string-sound at the finale’s opening held the breath

To a considered accompaniment, Helen Huang gave a neat if lacklustre account of the Mozart, which crucially lacked volatility let alone overt drama. The ’Romanze’ was foursquare, several times removed from classicism through the strings’ sheen and prissy phrasing, and the concerto as a whole sunk with a laboured account of the contrasting middle section, Huang failing to raise the requisite storm.

After 10 minutes ’entertainment’ from father and young son percussionists in John Chen’s derivation of popular and ’local’ elements, Dvořák’s Sixth Symphony, a masterpiece still awaiting discovery in the wider world, received a serene performance that made the music seem homespun and not located as Slavonic. A seamless first movement (exposition repeat eschewed, which tied in with the composer’s final wishes) was certainly lovingly conducted and played, but there’s more bristle to this music, and if the ’Adagio’ got more into Dvořák’s finer feelings (lovely silky strings), the contrasting fiery outburst was kept in check. The Furiant scherzo unhelpfully lost a repeat and never really took wing; some timpani interruptions were unidiomatic when set beside native conductors such as Ancerl, Sejna and Kubelik.

If Wong’s measured way with the Finale underlined the opening melody’s kinship with its counterpart in Brahms 2, some misplaced grandiosity and over-careful articulation mitigated the music’s exuberance and rendered it rather small-scale. However this partnership seems set for good things if Wong can stoke the boiler and be more identified with the music he conducts – Busoni aside, which he and the HKPO have recorded for Naxos.

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