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Players of the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia. Photo: courtesy Hong Kong Arts Festival

ReviewReview: Denis Matsuev/State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia/Kristjan Järvi at the Hong Kong Arts Festival

By turns controlled, dreamy and dazzling, orchestra and soloist pulled out the stops in an all-Russian programme at the Hong Kong Arts Festival

Russian folk tradition and youthful Romantic ideals were presented in majestic fashion in this Hong Kong Arts Festival concert of works by Rachmaninov and Stravinsky.

In 1891, at the ripe old age of 18, composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninov wrote his first Piano Concerto No 1 in F sharp minor. He revised the work in 1917, and said the less cumbersome version “is really very good now. All the youthful freshness is there, and yet it plays itself more easily”.

It does indeed, and this more slender version was performed with great virtuosity on Thursday evening by acclaimed Russian pianist Denis Matsuev and the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia under Estonian conductor Kristjan Järvi.

From the opening, fanfare-like Vivace, Matsuev was in complete control, and used his instrument’s full range in the extensive cadenza (a recollection of the movement’s themes), which made the nocturne-like Andante cantabile second movement all the more effective as he demonstrated wonderfully reflective playing. Youthful vivacity prevailed in the final sonata-rondo movement Allegro vivace, with soloist and orchestra as one under Järvi.

Rachmaninov’s enduringly popular Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor needs little introduction. Issues with the Cultural Centre’s acoustic left the cellos sounding too thin and distant, but the Moderato first movement, with Matsuev’s opening bell-like chords aptly setting the scene, was given a robust performance by both orchestra and soloist.

Denis Matsuev. Photo: Eugene Evtukhov

The Adagio sostenuto second movement opening was suitably dreamy, with the superb clarinet solo gently unfolding the much-loved melody. Beautifully intertwining the piano’s own version, Matsuev then gracefully transitioned to the agitated first theme of the final Allegro scherzando.


Its lyrical B-flat major second theme was seductive from the oboes and violas, and the orchestra dazzled in the fugal passage and coda that followed and the work’s exuberant final strains in C major.

Igor Stravinsky’s wonderful suite The Firebird from his 1910 ballet score followed the intermission. It contains 10 numbers from the original ballet, which is based on a good-versus-evil Russian fairy tale and somewhat Harry Potter-like in its spell-casting way.

It was an instant success at the Paris Opera, unlike his Rite of Spring ballet, which caused a near-riot at the 1913 premiere at Theatre des Champs-Elysees. And fantastic it was on Thursday, the orchestra under Järvi perfectly capturing the eerie and brooding introduction (Kashchei’s Magical Garden) and vividly depicting the Firebird’s opulent dance with exciting trills in Prince Ivan’s Encounter with the Firebird.

The fluttering winds were light and playful in the Scherzo: Dance of the Princesses and graceful in The Princesses’ Khorovod (Round Dance), with notably gorgeous solo oboe playing throughout.


Järvi let loose in the Infernal dance of King Kashchei, with its frenetic rhythms, whipping the orchestra wildly into motion like a heel-clicking cowboy in mid-flight.

The lovely lazy bassoon solo in the Berceuse (Lullaby) that followed provided a peaceful contrast, and a simple folk tune on the horn ’s simple folk tune announced the arrival of sunlight, the orchestra’s playing swelling and shining in a glorious and triumphant Finale.

Denis Matsuev with the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia “Evgeny Svetlanov”. Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall. Reviewed: March 8