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Classical music

Review: Hong Kong Philharmonic - Beethoven 1st and 9th symphonies

Final concert of symphonic cycle was a portrait of composer's career and a revealing snapshot of the orchestra's own evolution

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 December, 2015, 12:04pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 December, 2015, 12:04pm

The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra's Beethoven Symphony Cycle was a deeply satisfying set of concerts and a milestone for the ensemble.

The final concert, pairing the First and the Ninth, was a portrait of Beethoven's career and also a revealing snapshot of the philharmonic's own evolution. The orchestra plays to a high standard but perhaps is not fully mature, with room still to grow.

The First was an elegant gem, played with such clarity it was like watching the musical score. The Ninth had many beautiful moments, but was not at the same level overall.

The First is heavily modelled on Haydn and Mozart, but the young Beethoven's personality still rings through forcefully.

Conductor Jaap van Zweden's tempos were right on, the phrasing was expressive and varied, and solos, particularly oboe, were lovely and apt. The horn calls were perfection in the Andante cantabile con moto movement and the Finale was agile and athletic.

The opening of the Ninth was disappointing. There were misjudgments of balance in the brass, woodwinds and percussion. Beethoven starts with open fifths in the cellos, violins and horns, like the birth of sound in a vast cosmos. But the horns were so forward and the strings were so hushed that the space seemed tight.

As the majestic, craggy main theme gradually came into definition, the orchestra sounded too pale. Beethoven's ideas in this massive structure take time to unfold, but the first movement sometimes sounded murky.

The second movement, Molto vivace, brightened the picture, with a tour de force of woodwind ensemble fast tonguing. In the Adagio molto e cantabile, the orchestra rose to radiance. The first violins played with elegant portamento slides and the second violins were also gorgeous. A rising key change sounded like a skylight opening in the room, and the music was graced with magical variations. Van Zweden has a genius for these moments, and it was unforgettable.

The choral section was ushered in by bass-baritone Kwangchul Youn, who had marvellous German diction starting with his scolding, "O friends, not these sounds!" Tenor Charles Reid was also expressive. Deborah Humble was the mezzo-soprano and Zhou Yuqian (soprano) acquitted herself well as a last-minute replacement for Emma Bell.

The NCPA Chorus did an adequate job, although sounding strained in high passages. The ending was played at a manic but undeniably exciting tempo, eliciting a standing ovation.

Beethoven Symphony Cycle: 1 & 9, Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Cultural Centre Concert Hall. Reviewed: December 4