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Violinist Nicola Benedetti performs Bruch’s Violin Concerto in G minor with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a concert recorded in London to mark Hong Kong’s City Hall’s 60th anniversary. Photo: London Philharmonic Orchestra

ReviewGranular Tchaikovsky, erudite Elgar, dazzling Bruch in LPO concerts for Hong Kong – watch them free online

  • Performance of Elgar’s Enigma Variations can often wallow in sentimentality, but not that of the London Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor Edward Gardner
  • Clarity is the hallmark of the orchestra’s playing in two concerts recorded to mark the 60th anniversary of its performances for Hong Kong City Hall’s opening

Think bangers and mash or bacon and eggs for a moment (sorry vegans).

If there were a musical equivalent to those classic pairings, the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations would surely be right up there: a quintessentially British staple of its repertoire since Thomas Beecham founded the LPO in 1932.

In 1962, the LPO performed the Elgar work at Hong Kong City Hall to mark the inauguration of the concert and theatre venue. Sixty years later, the orchestra was invited back to celebrate the Central landmark’s anniversary, including by playing some of the same works as back then.

Its visit thwarted by Covid-19 travel restrictions, the LPO resorted to pre-recording two Hong Kong programmes at London’s Battersea Arts Centre. This was done using a customised audio and video system that involved the use of around 50 microphones covering every section of the orchestra.

The audience at Hong Kong City Hall watch one of two concerts the London Philharmonic Orchestra recorded to celebrate the venue’s 60th anniversary. The LPO performed in the same venue in 1962 for the inauguration of the Central landmark. Photo: LCSD

The resulting films were screened in the City Hall concert hall on August 20 and 21, where dozens of extra speakers controlled by a team of sound engineers were installed to compensate for the orchestra’s physical absence.

Enigma fatigue (if that were ever a thing!) never came into play. In the August 21 concert film, the vibrancy of the LPO’s performance of the work was fully captured, with plenty of acoustic and visual surprises. With principal conductor Edward Gardner at the helm, the concert featured a rendition of Elgar’s fourteen Variations on an Original Theme that shunned excessive sentimentality.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra under Malcolm Sargent performs at one of five concerts to open the new Hong Kong City Hall in March 1962. Photo: LCSD

Gardner chose to focus on individual instruments and allow some sound to shine that are often overlooked. It was, as Gardner neatly conveyed in a video message, a very inclusive experience for players and audience alike that was enhanced by the camera work.

The heartfelt cello solo from Kristina Blaumane in Variation XII was a case in point. Close-up shots immersed audience members in the orchestra and offered insight into the physical and mental preparation required for such a performance.

David Quiggle’s lovely viola sound was brought to the fore in Variation X, as was Benjamin Mellefont’s gorgeous clarinet solo in the Variation XIII romanza, cameras lingering on the sunglasses hanging from his open-neck shirt!

Hong Kong City Hall is often regarded as a cradle of our cultural scene
Composer Charles Kwong wrote in his programme notes for Lullabies

All the quirky elements of Elgar’s character sketches were executed precisely and played with brilliant edginess and playfulness. Gardner brought out the profundity of the slow Variation IX “Nimrod” by highlighting its alternating moods of light and shade without wallowing in its sadness.

The cutting-edge audio technology employed captured the grittiness in acclaimed Scottish-Italian violinist Nicola Benedetti’s fabulous reading of Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, the other work in the August 21 programme. Even if the bass amp dials were turned up too high at City Hall and the pizzicato, or plucking, in the double bass section was irritatingly over-resonant, Benedetti’s display of technique and sound was bright and dazzling.

The up-close filming and bathroom-like acoustic of the Battersea Arts Centre’s Grand Hall isn’t for the faint-hearted. There was no hiding technical details such as the violinist’s shifts of position and bowing changes. The performance was very real, very edgy and often exciting – far removed from the polished silkiness of renditions by violinists such as Joshua Bell.

Conductor Edward Gardner and violinist Nicola Benedetti during the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of Bruch’s Violin Concerto in G minor in a recorded concert to mark Hong Kong’s City Hall’s 60th anniversary. Photo: London Philharmonic Orchestra

Benedetti’s playing of the work’s Adagio was nothing short of heavenly and the Allegro energico Finale was just that; energy-laden, full of spicy Hungarian flavour and fabulous violinistic frenzies. Her technique and all the nuances of her Stradivarius instrument were put under the microscope.

“Hong Kong City Hall is often regarded as a cradle of our cultural scene,” Hong Kong composer Charles Kwong wrote in the programme notes for his fittingly titled composition Lullabies, the first of two works in the concert film shown at City Hall on August 20.

Commissioned for the occasion, Lullabies had its world premiere in Saturday’s screening, and hit the mark. Kwong’s series of short movements is highly evocative; some airy and wistful, others intertwining and shimmering, and all creating soundscapes shrouded in mystery.

What 1962 opening of City Hall meant for Hong Kong

The LPO’s detailed account of the work produced great clarity, with intricate string tremolos and trills and superb control of effects in the woodwinds. Lullabies is highly atmospheric, but the smoke-hazed backdrop created for its performance at the Battersea venue was a bit of a gimmick.

Still, listeners could sense a pulsating harbourfront in the music, and one couldn’t but help wonder what City Hall has witnessed in its 60 years, most of them next to the waters of Victoria Harbour.

Following Kwong’s Lullabies came Tchaikovsky’s majestic Symphony No. 5, another of the major works performed under the baton of Malcolm Sargent for the hall’s 1962 inauguration – the work’s Hong Kong debut.

On watching that first concert afterwards online (freely available until September 21) what impressed was the brightness of the recording and the audibility of Gardner’s interpretive details.

The lone horn sang with a beautifully restrained melancholy in the symphony’s Andante. The brief third movement waltz, although somewhat laid back in its lilt, was charming, the woodwinds’ rustic contributions full of cheeky wit. The Finale pulsated with energy from beginning to end, the laser-precise trumpet fanfares in their victorious version of the movement’s “Fate” motive a joy to hear.

Unfortunately, the low volume at which the Tchaikovsky was played at City Hall on Saturday drew some audience complaints.

“London Philharmonic Orchestra (Concert Screening)”, Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall. Reviewed August 21 and online. Free online replays are available until Sept. 21 at