Two works, by Brahms and Rimsky-Korsakov, made for the ideal programme to bask in the Philadelphia Orchestra sound. No concerto, no overture to get in the way, just non-stop orchestral magic.
Like a great Hong Kong milk tea, the beauty of orchestral sound comes from the complex depth and blend of flavours. The rich string legato is key but so are faultless brass, singing woodwinds and crisp percussion.
The Philadelphia Orchestra, one of the so-called Big Five orchestras in the United States, was founded in 1900 and formed its style under legendary leaders Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy. Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin has been conductor since 2012.
Nézet-Séguin’s youthful demeanour belied his serious approach to Brahms’ Symphony No 2, in which he showed himself a master of the romantic line and of forceful statements.
The Brahms No 2 is a tuneful piece, and the first movement, Allegro non troppo, kept returning to sunny, swaying waltzes, their arrivals beautifully paced.
The power of the orchestra was never raw, but revealed with control; there were no hard edges in transitions. At the endings, no cut-off was audible – the sound simply wasn’t there any more.
The cello and French horn were Brahms’ signature instruments, and the cello section and violas played gloriously. The horn solos, courtesy of principal horn Jennifer Montone, had such round perfection it was a physical pleasure to the eardrums.
In the third movement, with its lilting shepherd melody for oboe, the musical ideas seem to bloom rather than develop technically. The brass and rolling timpani married with the double basses as the music gained force.
The fourth movement, Allegro con spirito, started with a soft tread that broke into a spirited stomp. The brass ended with giant descending stair steps supporting the full power of the orchestra.
In contrast to Brahms’ lush brown-velvet textures, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade uses a rainbow of woodwinds, harp, and percussion. He literally wrote the book on orchestration and he loved high, sparkling, ear-teasing sounds, such as piccolo paired with triangle.
Again Nézet-Séguin brought out the serious side of this piece, making it symphonic and urgent. The opening trombones were ominous and heavy-footed.
Concertmaster and violin soloist David Kim movingly portrayed Scheherazade the storyteller with a sweet, tender cascade of triplets. Flute, oboe and clarinet solos were all played with freedom and imagination, especially the bassoon, which played with spellbinding colours.
The melody in the third movement, the Young Prince and Young Princess, was irresistible, with elegant slides in the violins and cellos. Near the end the solo violin declaimed in fierce double stops, and at times the audience was so quiet you could hear Kim’s fingers tap the fingerboard.
The blizzard of tempo changes in the last movement created electric tension, leading to the grand statement of the main theme in the brass under swirling flutes. The extreme, exposed high notes in the violin made a poignant and appropriate ending.
After well-deserved applause for each and every section, Glazunov’s Autumn: Petit Adagio from The Seasons was a ravishing encore.
The Philadelphia Orchestra, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall. Reviewed: 19 May