Foster's baton charge to the finish
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra
Cultural Centre Concert Hall
The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra's final performance of the season promised a solid meat-and-two-veg affair, with sets of variations by Brahms and Elgar book-ending Ravel's two piano concertos.
Although written around the same time, the Piano Concerto in G and the Piano Concerto in D for the Left Hand sit well together on a programme. Cast in completely contrasting styles, the former bubbles with jazz infusions while the latter was born of the pains of the first world war, being written for Paul Wittgenstein whose right arm was amputated following action in the field.
Conductor Lawrence Foster's experience of working with French orchestras is extensive, but this did not seem to help with getting inside Ravel's head.
The brash opening section of the two-handed concerto was anaemic, while the slow movement's sensual, cheek-to-cheek waltz between the cor anglais and piano was danced at arm's length; the usually exuberant brass incursions sported not a whiff of burlesque.
Soloist Huseyin Sermet delivered his part eloquently, shining more effectively in the left-hand concerto where the orchestra's role stands more to the side.
His trifling 30-second encore suggested he wanted to linger on stage as little as possible after the event.
The fact that Foster's account of Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Haydn lacked variety wasn't a good start. Speeds changed but moods barely budged; musical lines got flattened and the mass of significant details in the woodwind writing remained obscured.
This didn't bode well for Elgar's friends who are sketched into the 14 vignettes of his Enigma Variations. They must have been a two-dimensional bunch if Foster's take on their characterisations is to be accepted.
The confused balance in the fifth variation extended into the sixth, where the focal point of the viola solo was near inaudible; the seventh sported timps that were too loud for good taste and the eighth's allusion to Winifred Norbury's gentility tended more to sterility.
Elgar paints himself into the final variation, but there was no space for even a touch of Edwardian grandeur in Foster's unseemly dash to the finish.