Like a well-balanced curry, full of flavour and lingering warmth, the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s all-Russian programme packed plenty of punch. It was music-making par excellence and edge-of-the-seat stuff. Moscow-born pianist Boris Giltburg added pinches of chilli to his performance of Prokofiev’s much-revered third concerto, delivering whip-cracking runs with jaw-dropping technique. Meanwhile, Russian-British conductor Vasily Petrenko (one of the candidates rumoured to succeed the HK Phil’s music director Jaap van Zweden in 2024) coaxed a sound that oozed warmth and substance from the orchestra in Rachmaninov’s monumental second symphony. Hot and spicy only begins to describe Giltburg’s take on Prokofiev. The percussive detail in each and every note of his lightning quick passages was breathtaking. With wrists poised in praying-mantis-like fashion, the pianist’s fingers hovered, aligned themselves, and then fell like guided missiles as they struck each and every target with uncanny uniformity. Even from the upper balcony, the extreme clarity and precision was notable from the moment Giltburg’s exuberant allegro broke away from the orchestra’s initial lyrical blossoming. The HK Phil, far from playing a mere accompanying role, was formidable in dialogue with the soloist. Petrenko’s coolheadedness and fluidity of gesture came across as a pillar of reassurance for the players as he maintained long lines and rhythmic pulse, as steady as can be and never fazed, even as things reached a frenzied pace. Glimpses of Giltburg’s otherworldly lyricism in the opening movement were only reinforced in the haunting fourth variation of “Theme and Variations” – one of five that comprise the second movement. His hushed, cascading falling thirds and conversational engagement with the orchestra were ethereal and meditative. It came as a highly effective contrast to the way in which Petrenko and the orchestra brilliantly milked the quirkiness of the original hesitant and ever so sarcastic gavotte theme and its subsequent fragmented guises. Young Hong Kong string quartet wow with energetic Mozart, Dvorak readings When Giltburg’s heavenly, harp-like runs shimmered once again in the finale – this time over lovely, gently muted woodwinds – the dream was short-lived and all but fleeting. The ensuing “argument” between soloist and orchestra – as Prokofiev himself described the final allegro ma non troppo movement – was far from over. Like a true yellow-versus-blue political dispute in Hong Kong, there was plenty of steam in this interplay, such as the aptly abrupt and assertive entrance by Giltburg that conflicted perfectly with the steadily set up bassoon and string pizzicato opening. Ultimately though, it was the increasing prominence of the pianist’s penetrating ornamentation against the orchestra’s stubbornly precise and brilliant barrage of angular rhythms that made for such an electrifying final coda. If there were any doubts that the much-loved second symphony by Rachmaninov would pale after a Prokofiev third like that, they were soon put to rest after intermission. Petrenko’s reading with the HK Phil was a doozy, and one for the books. His long, fluid arm and hand movements – reminiscent of the poise and panache of the great Carlos Kleiber – coaxed the most graceful of musical arcs, creating endless space for the strings to surge passionately, which they did, in the first and third movements. SLF’s latest production ‘Run’ takes dance theatre in new direction If you could conjure a musical image of racehorses bolting from the gates at Happy Valley in perfect unison, this was it. The violins sparkled brilliantly against the rousing French horns, impressing with their solid rhythmical drive in the frantic opening of the second movement. And time stood still yet again with Andrew Simon’s dreamy and heartfelt clarinet solo in the highly sentimental third movement, an adagio where passionate playing throughout the orchestra was the order of the day. But ultimately it was Petrenko’s innate ability to maintain continual musical tension in a thoughtful, purposeful and unflashy manner that impressed deeply. As cheers and ovations marked the conclusion of a rousing and joyous finale, it seemed a pretty sure bet that Vasily Petrenko would appear again soon with the HK Phil, either as guest conductor or in a more permanent role. “Vasily Petrenko & Boris Giltburg”, Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall. Reviewed: January 14, 2023.