Ashkenazy draws performance from the heart by Hong Kong Philharmonic

Ashkenazy's heartfelt reading of soulful Sibelius and rugged Rachmaninov draws best from Phil

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 October, 2014, 5:50am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 October, 2014, 3:20pm

Ashkenazy: A Gift for HK
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra
Grand Hall, University of Hong Kong

A quality audience and a biting performance of a poignant programme at the city's top academic institution ensured the occasion was a special one.

No money could buy this deeply heart-felt reading of some soul-searching music by renowned conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, who flew in from his Swiss home to offer a week of rehearsal and performances in Hong Kong free of charge.

His "gift" to the city began with Finlandia, an orchestral warhorse by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius championing a defiant minority against the mighty. It was poise rather than drama that Ashkenazy brought out in the music. The overall tone was solemn and the climaxes brilliant but never sensationalised. The hymn in the middle section was played on the flute with moving earnestness. The great, pompous ending was breathtaking.

The mood changed starkly in The Swan of Tuonela, the name for the Island of the Dead around which the swan glides, as depicted by the cor anglais solo in dark timbre. Superb playing aside, it was a little loud against muted strings in the backdrop, probably due to the hall's sensitive acoustics. But the build-up to the climax in C major for a glimpse of sunlight and hope through the harp and horns was majestic. Equally atmospheric was the way the cello solo faded out as the swan disappeared. It was reflective music at its very best.

The mood changed again with the Karelia Suite. Despite some problem with the horns in the quiet beginning, the three-movement work carried the audience through an enchanting march, a sorrowful yearning, and a vigorous procession.

Ashkenazy was clearly enjoying the music-making, and so were the responsive musicians.

The second half of the evening featured the lengthy Second Symphony by Sergei Rachmaninov, a work his Russian compatriot holds dear and presented as the lion's share of his gift to Hong Kong.

The atmospheric opening with the bass strings set the tone. The overall timbre might be rugged rather than refined, but the musical flow was natural and spontaneous. The great urgency that opened the second movement and the heart-warming theme in the third were moments to cherish. The level of intensity was well told by the broken string of one violinist halfway through the final movement. The final dash drew a bravura round of applause from the full-house audience as a way to say thank you to the generous maestro.

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