Classical music

Van Zweden mixes power and grace to exhilarating effect in Beethoven cycle’s opener

Two fuzzy moments aside, this was a performance of precision, boldness and originality from the Hong Kong Philharmonic under the Dutch maestro’s baton

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 November, 2015, 6:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 13 November, 2015, 6:13pm

Ludwig van B. and Jaap van Z. go together like cream and sugar. The opening concert of the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s Beethoven symphonic cycle showed off conductor Jaap van Zweden’s winning mix of power and control and a distinct dash of dance-like grace.

Beethoven’s Symphony no. 8 in F was a good opener for the complete series of nine symphonies. Like a palate cleanser before the massive and definitive Ninth, it is light-hearted, understated and charming.

Van Zweden set a firm beat with room for delicate tempo changes. Beethoven had a way with the simple musical motto, in this case a bouncing octave jump. He used it for everything from subtle rhythmic propulsion to titanic, celestial donkey brays. All the players sounded their best, the cellos sang, the woodwinds were well balanced and the brass bold and clean.

Instead of a weighty slow movement, this symphony has a moderate Allegretto like a delightful ballet score. The woodwinds played their clockwork pulse with nice control and the echoing repartee from one side of the stage to the other was deftly done. The Menuetto was smoothly played by the strings, who showed fine detailing in phrasing. The brass and drums made a good team in the Trio section. The horns and clarinet sounded lovely over rolling arpeggios in the cellos.

In the final movement, Allegro Vivace, there was a slight lack of coordination in the very fast opening. The delicate tissue of the music was slightly frayed, marring the fine finish of the performance. Given the precision displayed elsewhere this was puzzling. But once the tempo was grasped, everything went enjoyably, and we entered Beethoven’s swirling universe of sudden thunder, horn calls and sweet peasant dances, ending with the octave motto and massive chords.

Symphony no. 3, Eroica, is almost twice as long as the 8th and twice as serious. In this piece Beethoven entered the Romantic era and pushed his ideas to the limit. The first two chords were properly bold. The opening idea in the cellos was underplayed and the sweeping answer of the violins came to the fore, an original and appealing choice. The tempo was ideal and created an irresistible momentum. The transitions from slashing chords to swaying dance were exhilarating.

Everything in this symphony is super-sized; themes that seem opposite at first hearing are magically layered together in harmony. The famous “mistaken” early horn entrance heralding the return of the first theme was perhaps a bit loud, but certainly worked. The theme in its biggest rendition was truly heroic.

The Marcia Funebrewas superb in texture and solemn mood. The basses played their groaning notes with ghostly tone. The oboe floated above the orchestra elegantly. The broad tread of the horns contrasted effectively with the eerie strings. A grainy, almost hoarse tone from the violins was striking near the end.

The Scherzo and Trio was fast and started a bit fuzzily. But again it settled into an enjoyable performance, the brass particularly glinting with bright colours, and the ending was perfect.

In the Finale’s set of variations Beethoven included a multilayered fugue, a Turkish march, a church hymn texture like organ notes, and gentle musical jokes where entrances sounded late or early. The tugging pulse built relentlessly to arrive at a heavenly dance with an enchanting lilt to it. Slowing down near the end to better make the final statement, the oboe again played eloquently. The last joyful blast led by the brass was worth waiting for.

Beethoven Symphony Cycle, Hong Kong Philharmonic, Cultural Centre Concert Hall. Reviewed: November 12