Classical music

Review: Hong Kong International Chamber Music Festival

Broad range of composers and elegant and balanced playing made for a perfect week of music that ended with an explosive finale

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 February, 2016, 1:02pm
UPDATED : Monday, 01 February, 2016, 1:25pm

Fine artistry, effective programming and a touch of casual, impromptu music making made this year’s Hong Kong International Chamber Music Festival a perfect week of music.

The opening night concert presented a broad palette of composers from Bartók to Brahms. Dohnányi’s Serenade for string trio brought out the best in the strings, with a beautiful Romanza movement plus some gypsy flavour with a little Hungarian paprika, elegantly played by violinist Martin Beaver, violist Paul Neubauer and cellist Gary Hoffman.

Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion was from a bleaker but fascinating universe. Timpanist James Boznos played exotic gulping timpani pitch-bends and shimmering gongs. Pianists Zhang Zuo and Jon Kimura Parker performed the rapid, irregular rhythms and delicate textures with agility. However, the xylophone played by Rieko Koyama was sometimes too loud and conversely the climactic moments never rose to the desired wall of sound.

The Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor brought out a new level of radiant beauty and a language pregnant with meaning. One had to wonder what happened between Bartók and Brahms to lose the sense of enchantment – were people really happier in the days before jet planes and penicillin? Pianist Parker played with velvet fingers and the autumnal mood was sustained through dance-like, graceful and effervescent passages.

On the second day, in a new venue for the Festival, the Hong Kong Maritime Museum hall had a surprisingly big, rich sound. The only piece that suffered from the bright acoustics was Dvorák’s String Quintet, which sounded somewhat strident despite the Czech genius for string-writing and expert playing of the two violins, two violas and cello.

However, the Sonata a Quattro No. 3 by the 12-year-old Rossini had a mellifluous balance with bass substituting for cello. Mozart’s Duo for Violin and Viola was played with clarity and warmth by Clara-Jumi Kang on violin and Paul Neubauer on viola.

The Emerson Quartet, formed in 1976 and based in New York City, is the epitome of an established chamber ensemble. The instrument tones are seamlessly matched and it was a joy to hear their craft in deft articulation and phrasing on the fourth day of the festival. In Schubert’s Rosamunde quartet, the immortal melodies were played with a delicate touch. Shostakovich’s Quartet No.10 revealed a more brutal sound with slashing down bows, working its way to more lyrical and playful music. Mendelssohn’s String Quintet No. 2 with Toby Hoffman on viola had a sense of urgency that built to an avalanche of notes at the showy ending.

The finale of the festival was the finest among a set of fine concerts. Zhang played superbly and imaginatively in Anton Arensky’s Piano Trio No. 1, blending with the magnificent violin and cello in the Elegia (Adagio). Festival artistic director Cho-Liang Lin has a romantic soul and was at his best leading the group through the piece’s arching melodies, although in his dual role as music director and performer he occasionally strained a bit in virtuoso passages. The Emerson Quartet played Dvorák’s String Quartet No. 12, American. The Lento movement couldn’t have been more exquisite and the Native American (filtered through Czech sensibilities) rhythms and melodies were irresistible.

Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-Flat Major, a mainstay of the repertoire, was like plunging into deep water. Parker played the piano with a warm sound, always in ideal balance with the strings, and rose to fierce brilliance in the Scherzo and the final Allegro movement. The endings of all the movements were played with such precision and conviction they earned stars and “wows!!” in my notebook, and the final ending landed with explosive effect.

Hong Kong International Chamber Music Festival. Various venues. Reviewed: January 20 to 27