Celebrating Hong Kong’s 20th anniversary of the Special Administrative Region, the government invited the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle back onto Hong Kong soil after a 12-year absence. Consequently, this was also going to be Rattle’s last Asian tour with the Orchestra as its Chief Conductor before he steps down from his current role in 2018. Tonight was the first of two concerts, of which more than 10,000 were estimated to have attended as both were streamed from inside the Cultural Center to audiences outside.

Seong-Jin Cho, Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic © LCSD
Seong-Jin Cho, Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic

Strauss’ Don Juan is a piece much loved by orchestras around the world including the Berlin Phil. Dr Ip Kim-ho, in his programme notes, reminded audiences that the tone poem was one of the very pieces Wilhelm Furtwängler included in his debut with the orchestra in 1917. Under Rattle’s direction, the opening was energetic with full intensity, aided by the razor-sharp precision of the strings and blazing brass calls. The gentler and tender side of Don Juan’s musical character was depicted by pristine woodwind playing, including passages between the flute and lower strings and also the beautiful oboe solo to resemble Don Juan’s romantic affair. The mix of instrumental personalities each had their moments under the spotlight and accentuated the wide palette of orchestral colours which underpin Strauss' score.

Next came Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major featuring pianist Seong-Jin Cho, whose playing was largely restrained. Cho undertook more of a passive role rather than carrying the lead in his dialogues with the orchestra, and he made few attempts to experiment the variations in rhythmical nuance. The opening episode of the first movement was glazed over rather than drawing the audiences into the rhythmical brilliance of the music. Despite being situated in a central seat, I felt the pianist miscalculated the acoustics of the Cultural Center in some of his dynamic choices. Thus, in the transition passage of the first movement where new, syncopated rhythms are introduced and added on top by different instruments, Cho’s glissandi and associated pianistic effects were barely audible. This notwithstanding, he performed a beautiful second movement, graced with delicacy and unruly individuality that transformed into a beautiful espressivo passage signalled by delicate trills. Cho returned to the stage to the affectionate audience with a performance of Debussy’s Clair de lune as an encore, played with gentleness and self-reflection.

Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic © LCSD
Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic

Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic returned post-intermission with Brahms’ Symphony no. 4 in E minor. Their playing was refined with highlights from both intersectional and solo contributions, such as the lyrical cello melody in the first movement, the well-harmonized woodwind playing with pizzicato strings in the opening of the second movement as well as the solo passages of the oboists and clarinettist of the same movement, and the melodic textures featuring the horns and trombones in the finale. While melodic playing was evident, the effects sounded learned and rehearsed, rather than feeling natural. Throughout the entire performance, audiences could observe Rattle’s hand gestures and bodily cues, either signalling for more vibrato or eliciting other technical effects from his players. The outcome did not always meet the conductor’s expectations and in some instances, Rattle would repeat his cueing. In the finale, the playing lacked some boldness and urgency to heighten the drama. A performance that left me with mixed feelings.