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French pianist François-Frédéric Guy performs with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta under the baton of Hungarian conductor Gabor Kali. Part of Le French May 2018. Photo: courtesy of Hong Kong Sinfonietta

François-Frédéric Guy Plays Beethoven review: bold musical choices and a few shaky moments

French pianist interprets Beethoven and Tchaikovsky with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, led by Hungarian conductor Gabor Kali in an exciting eclectic programme that sometimes lost clarity. Part of Le French May

Dirk Newton

Into its 25th edition, Le French May has outgrown its original premise to incorporate a plethora of international and local fare. This programme is testament to that diversity: a French pianist interpreting fin de siècle Beethoven, Tchaikovsky’s tribute to Mozart, a co-commissioned French work, all performed under the baton of the Hungarian conductor Gabor Kali and with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta.

The concert opened with Pierre-Yves Macé’s world premiere Contre-flux I – Muzak Codex for Orchestra, which opts for a chamber-sized ensemble and yet expresses a wide variety of moods and colours.

Hungarian conductor Gabor Kali (centre). Photo: courtesy of Hong Kong Sinfonietta
As the composer himself describes, “he first gathers recordings of Muzak (equating to ‘elevator’ music), which he electronically transforms through different filters”.

The result was a spasmodic, almost piecemeal, series of varying timbral outbursts. Solos were only ever fleeting, instrumental effects were often employed, and the frenetic was balanced with the tender. The outcome was a refreshing tonal palette with an eclectic mix of sounds that the Sinfonietta presented with assurance.

The least successful aspect of the evening was the inclusion of Tchaikovsky’s “Mozartiana” suite, but this is mostly related to programming rather than presentation.

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It is largely a series of direct transcriptions of Mozart piano pieces, which have been compiled not for their connection by key, structure, or even intention; but rather by a lack of historical significance.

It is difficult for an ensemble to present these movements in a manner that provides unity, especially beginning with a gigue that is normally reserved for conclusion.

Kali was bold with his tempo choices: presenting the opening dance at a lightning pace, the minuet slightly under standard speed, presumably to draw out the unusual chromaticism in play, and a degree of liberty with the closing of set of variations.

Pianist Guy performs with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta. Photo: courtesy of Hong Kong Sinfonietta
There were some shaky moments in the orchestra, but James Cuddeford’s violin solo was polished albeit somewhat mechanical, and although the orchestra seemed to lose some momentum in the closing portions, Tchaikovsky’s masterful orchestration was brought to the fore.

The concerto that capped the night’s programme is set in the key that has become synonymous with Beethoven’s struggles: C minor. Yet, evident in subsequent works most notably the Fifth Symphony in which the restlessness transforms into triumphant C major, here the metamorphosis is less sophisticated.

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With his opening statement François-Frédéric Guy, as an experienced Beethoven practitioner, seemingly brought the orchestra more in line with his interpretation of the material, after a somewhat lacklustre opening exposition.

Although not always in complete synchronicity in the first movement, there were lovely moments of delicacy, in particular Guy’s almost distant arpeggiated flourishes in the post-cadenza portion, cleverly communicating that the pianist does not ordinarily play at this point.

The highlight, however, was the opening of the second movement in which Guy was able to move inward and reflect the otherworldliness of the solemn hymnlike passage. The final movement needed greater clarity, but the crowd were rambunctious in their appreciation for the French interpreter and he appeased them by playing two famous Beethoven pieces as encores.

François-Frédéric Guy Plays Beethoven

Hong Kong Sinfonietta

Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall

Reviewed: May 25