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The Insula period instrument orchestra and Accentus choir, their conductor, Laurence Equilbey, and pianist Yuan Sheng receive the applause of the audience at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall following their performance of Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy” on February 25. Photo: courtesy of the HK Arts Festival

Review | Beethoven on period instruments a mixed success in cavernous Hong Kong concert hall; Chinese pianist Yuan Sheng impresses on a 19th century grand

  • The size of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall challenged the Insula orchestra in an all-Beethoven programme for the Hong Kong Arts Festival
  • The sounds of bass instruments didn’t carry enough and the icy violin timbre didn’t always work; but Yuan Sheng, on a 19th century piano, excelled in two works

Can a historically informed performance of music written 200 years ago deliver an entirely authentic sound experience given the absence of recordings? Obviously not.

Then again, historical replication is not the only name of the game.

As conductor Laurence Equilbey pointed out in the programme notes for the all-Beethoven concert performed in Hong Kong on February 25 by the period instrument orchestra Insula, the Accentus choir and piano soloist Yuan Sheng, “learning where the expression and contrast lives in the music” is what counts.

The performance, part of this year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival, offered ample opportunity to contemplate the “new” sounds of old instruments.

The Insula orchestra, seen here with the Accentus choir and pianist Yuan Sheng, had mixed success performing on period instruments in such a cavernous space as the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall. Photo: courtesy of the HK Arts Festival

The comprehensive programme included an overture, a symphony and solo piano variations, and culminated with the whole kit and caboodle of orchestra, piano, choir and soloists in Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy.

The Paris-based orchestra took some time to settle into the opener, the Coriolan Overture. The lightning strikes that depict Corolianus’ stubborn resolve and his warlike tendencies were shaky to begin with, but as soon as the development section got under way the outbursts sounded more resolute and the underlying restless energy found its groove.

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Playing on early instruments, their sounds often more suited to intimate settings, is no mean feat in the cavernous Concert Hall of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. The efforts of Equilbey’s ensemble to overcome this met with mixed success.

The rumbling of the four double bassists was often too tame, and the violins, as tender sounding as they were in their vibrato-free delivery of the pleas of Corolianus’ mother to resist war, probably needed a tad more “wobble” to achieve a warmer sound in the vast space.

This icy approach was effective, however, in the wonderfully hushed and mysterious opening to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major. Equilbey, a conductor strongly influenced by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the late hero of the original-instrument movement in Vienna, clearly relishes the raw and earthy sounds of original instruments.

Laurence Equilbey conducted the Insula orchestra and Accentus choir in Hong Kong. Photo: Hong Kong Arts Festival

Her layering of tension in the slow introduction was excellent, and the transition to the explosive and energetic Allegro first movement was well captured. Brilliant, metallic-sounding timpani added fascinating interjections.

In their vital rhythmic role, the bassoons bubbled along merrily, but were low on volume, their sound only reaching the hall’s upper rafters when it became more insistent.

After the intermission came a work for solo piano, (played on an antique 19th century instrument loaned from Shenzhen, southern China) for Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor.

China-born period keyboardist Yuan Sheng rehearses on an 1862 C. Bechstein piano ahead of his performance with Insula and Accentus. Photo: courtesy of Hong Kong Arts Festival.

Should listeners feel cheated of an “authentic Beethoven” performance if it is not played on one of the composer’s own fortepianos? Not at all.

Given Beethoven’s frustration with the instruments of the day and their inadequacy for expressing the full range of the emotions he poured into his music, it was a treat to hear a period instrument that could fulfil that role and easily fill the space with sound.

Chinese pianist and historical keyboardist Yuan Sheng performed the Variations on one of the earliest known surviving C. Bechstein pianos, an impressive grand built in Berlin in 1862.

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Sheng’s reading of the set reflected its improvisatory nature wonderfully. His playing flowed with ease, even in passages where rhythmic virtuosity and percussive effects were called for, and was marked by dexterous and finely contoured phrasing that constantly revealed surprises.

Fleeting flaws in his execution didn’t detract from the startling clarity that Sheng achieved in the treble register and the atmospheric rumblings in the bass. Ultimately, he managed to do exactly what Beethoven intended with this composition – to showcase keyboard textures and techniques to the fullest.

Equally impressive was Sheng’s emotionally charged piano introduction to Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy in C minor, a series of meandering modulations par excellence.

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The orchestra joined in with a bit of swing that was infectious, and the Accentus choir led by associate conductor Christophe Grapperon shone in their impressive, albeit brief, showing (their Hong Kong visit also included a performance of Fauré’s Requiem on February 23).

The second violins provided a delicate, forward-moving accompaniment in the second movement, which featured graceful and elegant playing by the string and woodwind sections and some lovely lyricism from the clarinet in particular.

While the angular Scherzo had good bustling energy, it was marred by some conflicting first violin articulation and questionable intonation.

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Order was fully restored in the final movement. The natural (valveless) horns didn’t “speak” clearly early on, but they were certainly rousing and spot on later in the finale.

It was tight, well executed, and the ensemble’s sound sparkled in its homogeneity – bringing a fitting and convincing conclusion to Equilbey’s sound exploration.

“Hong Kong Arts Festival – Beethoven on Period Instruments”, Insula orchestra and Accentus, Concert Hall, Hong Kong Cultural Centre. Reviewed: February 25