No horses were spared on Friday evening at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. And neither were the cows! In this larger-than-life rendition of Richard Strauss’ dawn-to-dusk tone poem An Alpine Symphonypresented by the Hong Kong Philharmonic complete with photographic projections of alpine scenery, little was left to the imagination. The spectacular images, snapped by German photographer Tobias Welle, were projected onto a huge screen and loosely followed Strauss’ score. But the jury remains out as to whether the images added or detracted from the musical narrative and/or the listener’s imagination. 

The Hong Kong Philharmonic plays An Alpine Symphony
© Keith Hiro | HK Phil

As unavoidable and unfortunate as it was, the eyesore of a screen did distract and covered most of the organ and any sign of organist Anne Lam in the opening work, the Festliches Präludium. Fortunately though, her rousing playing could never have gone unnoticed in this work, one that is often criticised as a piece of noisy pomp, penned by Strauss to open Vienna’s Konzerthaus in 1913. The HK Phil’s rendition with Lio Kuokman was voluminous and majestic enough and, as it probably did back then, gave the Concert Hall’s rafters a good rattling. 

Even if the pumped-up Alpine Symphony was on the brink of overkill, Kuokman and the HK Phil delivered the musical goods in spades. The brass playing was as precise as ever, notably in their execution of the more rugged manifestations of The Ascent motif. The fanfares, both on-and-off stage, were largely precise, aside from the odd occasion when the trumpets overreached in their chorales and distorted their otherwise fine ensemble. Horns and trombones presented their theme in Entering the Forest with brilliance and the intermittent birdcalls in the woodwind were delightful. Strauss’ glittering textures in both the At the Waterfall and Apparition sections were enhanced by brilliantly executed cascading string figures. 

Alena Baeva and the Hong Kong Philharmonic
© Keith Hiro | HK Phil

And those cows! Images of alpine flowers and happy, well-fed cattle really drove home the sentiment in On the Alpine Pasture. But where Strauss’ imagery is so intrinsically vivid given the whole kit and caboodle of cowbells, the yodelling from the English horn, and the bleating of sheep from the oboe’s flutter tonguing, the visuals were kitschy. Ultimately though it was the cheering from the audience that proved the spectacle’s success. 

Wedged between the Strauss works was a gem of a performance of Korngold’s 1945 Violin Concerto in D major given by Russian violinist Alena Baeva. Not only was her display of technical mastery in the brisk outer movements breathtaking – especially her super-clean and edgy staccato jig that began the finale – but the silky tone that she projected to all corners in the Hollywood-perfumed Romance was thoroughly captivating. Baeva has all the goods as a violinist and has much to say musically. Similarly, her Eugène Ysaÿe encore was both a showcase of commanding technique, brilliant clarity and jam-packed with heart and soul.