Review: Rachmaninov Paganini Rhapsody

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 June, 2014, 10:51am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 June, 2014, 10:51am

Rachmaninov Paganini Rhapsody
Hong Kong Sinfonietta HK City Hall Concert Hall
Reviewed: May 30

German conductor Christoph Poppen and the Hong Kong Sinfonietta achieved something remarkable by producing a performance of Mendelssohn's Symphony No3, Scottish, that almost made me like the work. I'm not alone in being sceptical about the piece, but the warmth of the applause suggested I wasn't the only convert.

It took Mendelssohn 13 years to write his last symphony. It contains little that brings to mind the subtitled country; on paper, the melodies look four-square; and it was dedicated to Queen Victoria, which suggests letting one's hair down to the skirl of the pipes wasn't on the agenda.

Yet Poppen and the players hit the spot by melding a structural dynamism with a sustained attention to detail. This was a reading that others would do well to emulate.

The programme opened with Poppen's arrangement for string orchestra of Webern's String Quartet (1905), a work that in its original form is far less popular than the composer's Slow Movement. This arrangement should secure more frequent airings for the piece; the wider dynamic levels it inhabits and Poppen's understanding of the 15-minute work beguiled the audience into rapt attention. But more warmth from the violins would have been appreciated.

Armenian pianist Nareh Arghamanyan was the soloist in Rachmaninov's Variations on a Theme of Paganini. After some rough woodwind and brass sounds in the opening bars, the performance threaded the short variations together well, with a good pace and colourful dialogue between soloist and orchestra. Arghamanyan (below) injected some interesting touches to the familiar lines, but needed extra peaks of power and bravura to make her account as special as the Mendelssohn that was to follow.

Sam Olluver