Although Mendelssohn and Elgar lived in different eras and composed in very different styles, a common thread runs through their works featured in Hong Kong Philharmonic’s performance on Saturday – all of them draw their inspiration from the British Isles.

Jaap van Zweden  ©  Dallas Symphony
Jaap van Zweden
© Dallas Symphony

As well-heeled youngsters in the 19th century were wont to do, Mendelssohn embarked on a tour of Europe as part of his education. At the age of 20, he arrived in England and soon made his way to Scotland, where his exciting experiences spawned two popular compositions: the overture The Hebrides or Fingal’s Cave and the Symphony no. 3 in A minor, “Scottish”.

“In order to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me, I send you the following, which came into my head there”, Mendelssohn wrote to his sister in August 1829, enclosing the first bars of the overture inspired by a visit to the island of Staffa. It opens quietly enough, with an unassuming and hummable descending figure, but soon blossoms into a full-blown roiling storm in which splashing waves whip up a large volume of spray. A lyrical melody then quietly creeps in on the lower strings and brings some sparks of brightness and beauty into the turbulence. The two themes intertwine for the rest of the overture, closing on a solo flute and pizzicato strings. The Hong Kong Philharmonic’s treatment of the overture was beautifully shaped, exploring fully the palette of orchestral colours afforded by the score. At points, however, traces of conductor Jaap van Zweden’s heavy hand were detectable, blunting what otherwise should have been sharper dynamic contrast.

Compared with Mendelssohn’s, Edward Elgar’s upbringing was decidedly plebeian. Instead of embarking on a grand tour of Europe, he joined the local solicitor’s office as a clerk upon leaving school. Nevertheless, he harboured aspirations to attend the Leipzig Conservatory, which Mendelssohn had founded in 1842. The exigencies of life thwarted his ambitions, but at age 25 he eventually made it to Leipzig. His Sea Pictures may not be the best known among his works, and will always live in the shadow of their immediate predecessor, the Enigma variations. Nevertheless, the five songs, set to poems by various authors mainly in the style of the dramatic monologue, remain sensitive testaments of Elgar’s response to maritime nature.

“Sea Slumber Song” is a gentle ballad of the sea lulling its baby to sleep, with the orchestra mimicking the gently rocking waves of the ocean. “In Haven (Capri)”, written by Elgar’s wife Alice, uses the ocean to express yearning for the eternity of love which can withstand the forces of circumstance. As such, it’s more about human relationships than about man’s relationship with nature. In “Sabbath Morning Sea”, Elizabeth Browning marvels at the wonders of the ocean and contemplates God’s hands of comfort through turbulence, as Elgar’s sombre rumbling strings and brass provide hallowed underpinning to a soaring vocal line. “Where Corals Lie” depicts man’s curiosity to explore far corners of the sea; the mood is light as the orchestra is bouncy. The final song in the set, “The Swimmer”, begins with music that suggests the ocean receding and engulfing everything in its wake. Yet man remains steadfast in the face of violence, charging valiantly against the challenge, hoping for triumph.

Christianne Stotijn’s voice has a warm and cosy feel about it and is well suited to the subject matter of Sea Pictures. Yet Elgar’s demands on the lower register turned out to be somewhat challenging for her on Saturday, and she sounded wobbly against the unfaltering orchestra. Nevertheless, her sensitivity won over the audience in the end.

Like the four seasons in the year, the movements of Mendelssohn’s Symphony no. 3 each has its own well-chiselled personality. The hymn-like opening to the first movement leads to a set of spirited and forceful variations only to close wistfully quiet again; the unbounded energy of the second movement, featuring some fine wind passages, perhaps comes close to capturing the freshness of the Scottish highlands; the mysterious and brooding atmosphere of the Adagio might be a depiction of Mendelssohn’s reaction to Holyrood House, where Mary Queen of Scots’ alleged lover was killed; the final movement is imbued with urgency and a strong sense of direction, with a surprise reprise of the opening hymn-like theme, having now acquired grandeur and majesty.

In his usual charismatic manner, Jaap van Zweden kept a strong hand over the Hong Kong Philharmonic in a polished and perfectly shaped interpretation, clearly delineating each layer of the architecture and giving free rein to solo instruments. The flute, clarinet and horns, in particular, presented some of the best playing I have heard from the orchestra. Once again, Maestro van Zweden shows his mettle.

Jaap’s MendelssohnHong Kong Philharmonic explores the sea with Elgar and Mendelssohn, conducted by Jaap van Zweden. Review by Alan Yu.4