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Classical music

Review: HK Phil/Christoph Eschenbach/Tzimon Barto – contrasts abound in evening of Brahms and Dvorak

Soloist in German composer’s monumental second piano concerto mixed power with poetry in a performance matched by gorgeous orchestral playing, while conductor set players free to delight in Dvorak symphony

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 October, 2017, 12:30pm
UPDATED : Monday, 09 October, 2017, 12:30pm

It would be easy to assume that a concert pairing of two late 19th century works composed within a decade of one another would be performed in a distinct late-romantic style.

Even considering Johannes Brahms’ high regard and support for Antonin Dvorak’s music and future career in German-speaking Europe, it’s an assumption that’s entirely off the mark, as seasoned American-born pianist Tzimon Barto and the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra under German-born veteran pianist and conductor Christoph Eschenbach demonstrated. Showing both sides of the romantic coin, they highlighted just how unalike the chosen masterworks are.

Written late in life and separated by an astonishing 22 years from his comparably youthful first concerto, Brahms’ famously symphonic Piano Concerto No 2 in B-flat major is a veritable roller coaster.

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Barto’s gentle and reflective answer to the opening horn call in the first movement Allegro non troppo began a careful unravelling of instrumental interplay, alluding to omnipresent drama. Powerful chordal playing from Barto in the unusually early cadenza was cleverly contrasted with his subsequent use of extremely hushed pianissimo and, despite the movement’s intermittent outbursts of passion, the overall mood of serenity and calmness remained intact.

The “tiny wisp of a scherzo”, as Brahms ironically called his turbulent Allegro appassionato second movement, is anything but small, and typical of the scherzi found in third movements of symphonies. Barto again contrasted virtuosic restlessness with dreamy and poetic passages while Eschenbach ensured beautiful, engaged string playing throughout.

Gorgeous solo playing from both principal cellist Richard Bamping, in the extensive cello theme of the concerto’s Andante third movement, and principal oboist Michael Wilson helped pave Barto’s way for thematic development and dialogue.

Brahms’ fondness for Hungarian gypsy-like melodies is obvious in the fourth and final movement Allegretto grazioso, where both the HK Phil and Barto relished the exchange of fragmentary themes that presage this massive work’s optimistic conclusion.

Exuberance prevailed after the interval in Dvorak’s lesser-known Symphony No. 8 in G major, and Friday’s appreciative crowd was swiftly transported to a world of cheerful innocence far removed from late Brahms and any inkling of romantic excess.

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The orchestra’s sound seemed noticeably freer in the Dvorak, coaxed and caressed by Eschenbach (without score), who occasionally employed tasteful rubato.

The Allegro con brio first movement, seductively introduced by the cello section, was perfectly paced and the ensuing tempi never felt rushed.

Pure enjoyment in the upper strings was always apparent, and concertmaster Jing Wang’s solid intonation and robust sound in the solo violin passage of the second movement Adagio was one of many highlights.

The Allegretto grazioso third movement was indeed just that, graceful in its swing, always maintaining a sense of tranquillity. The fourth and final movement Allegro ma non troppo, built on a traditional Czech furiant dance, provided a fitting and triumphant conclusion to Eschenbach’s Dvorak.

Eschenbach’s Dvorak, Cultural Centre Concert Hall. Reviewed October 6