Review: Rousing 'Beethoven and Brahms' concert held back by duel personality

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 August, 2013, 9:51am

Beethoven and Brahms
Hong Kong Sinfonietta
City Hall Concert Hall
Reviewed: August 17

The 70 young singers drawn from choirs across the city and trained especially for a performance as the SingFest Festival Chorus faced the challenge of making their mark in two unknown, short works.

What impressed most in Brahms' Schicksalslied was the quality and unanimity of their enunciation, a choral aspect that is crucial to producing a homogeneous texture, matched here by the Hong Kong Sinfonietta's equally fine blend under conductor Yip Wing-sie.

Chorus masters Patrick Chiu and Felix Shuen had drilled the ranks well - the only chip in the armour being a number of quiet soprano lines that were not floated perfectly.

This was not an issue in Beethoven's quirky Choral Fantasy. Following the work's extended Fantasia for Piano introduction, played by American pianist Ben Kim, and a set of variations for all and sundry, the singers brought the piece to a storming close. Kim's modulated sound, clarity of line and interplay with the orchestra helped to hit the mark.

Beethoven's Piano Concerto No4 fared less well. If the lengthy opening movement worked, it was for two reasons: the articulation of the principal themes was neither too detached nor too unctuous (extremes that antagonise the listener); and Kim's understatement of his part somehow held the attention.

But his limited tonal palette and control of the balance in melodic interest was an underlying problem. Tautness in the ensemble with the orchestra was not always assured, either.

The slow movement pits muscular orchestral declamations against a cowering piano soliloquy. The pathos this contrast produces is central to the impact, but the piano tried to dominate instead of surrendering, and all the magic was lost. The rollicking finale didn't quite manage to play up the excitement, despite its best efforts.

Brahms' Tragic Overture opened the programme. The performance had the dramatic shifts in character and sonority, but lacked tightness in attack and release, with occasional wayward notes from most departments.

Sam Olluver