“At least psychologically I feel more fearless. Brave, more brave on stage”, declared Shenzhen-born pianist Zhang Zuo (aka Zee Zee) in a recent South China Morning Post interview on returning to the stage for her first performance since becoming a mum. And fearless she was in a dazzling display of technical wizardry in Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in E flat major, the concert opener by the Hong Kong Philharmonic on Wednesday at the Cultural Centre’s Concert Hall under conductor Christoph Koncz’s baton. Zee Zee’s brilliant opening passage spanning four octaves was just a teaser of what was to follow, and a powerful response to the orchestra’s aptly villainous Allegro maestoso opening.

Zee Zee plays Liszt with the HK Phil
© Ka Lim | HK Phil

After the acrobatics calmed, a quasi love duet ensued between Zee Zee and principal clarinettist Andrew Simon that resembled a warm tender embrace. But not a long one. Zee Zee was soon back with such ferocious fire that she shook the upper balconies. When musical tenderness did emerge, however, the Chinese pianist was always up to the task and towards the end of the first section she fabulously imitated the sound of a harp with brisk, yet hushed arpeggios.

The warmth of the cello and double bass sound in unison cantabile was glorious in the second section, as was Zee Zee’s outer-worldly nocturne of soft, flowing left-hand arpeggios that acted like a cushion supporting the lovely cantabile melody above. The third movement’s playful duets between piano and the woodwind players were delightful in the famously mocked “Triangle Concerto”, due to its prominent use of the percussion instrument. As the movement took a darker turn, the Chinese pianist also revealed her flip side qualities, lending the eerie tremolando passage in the lower register a hushed and haunting sound quality. But with abounding energy, the star pianist continued to impress in the finale with exciting trilling, polyrhythms, and even more (now very familiar) downward cascading chromatic octaves that ultimately reached breakneck speed and thrilled the appreciative Hong Kong audience. 

Fortunately more substantial late Romantic fare followed with Johannes Brahms’ expansive Symphony no. 1 in C minor, where Koncz hit all the right buttons in a luxurious and engaging rendition with the orchestra. The sense of weightiness that the young Austrian conductor achieved with the HK Phil in the tragic opening Un poco sostenuto was glorious. The string sound in the lyrical passages was finely honed and noticeably more focused than in recent performances, while the Scherzo-like interjections and pizzicato were by and large energetic and precise. The ebb and flow of the lyrical Andante sostenuto second movement was engaging in Koncz’s hands as he nurtured just the right amount of charm and lilt from his players. Wonderful syncopated interplay between the higher strings set against the lower strings and woodwind paved the way for the lovely violin and horn duet, where principal horn player Jiang Lin shone, as he did later in the Finale’s “Alphorn” theme.

Andrew Simon’s clarinet playing was as alluring as ever in the short and jovial third movement Un poco allegretto e grazioso, and pure joy dominated the vast final movement, with horns and trombones heralding the Alphorn theme with great nobility and grandeur over a wonderful landscape of shimmering strings. Likewise, the main striding C major theme that recalls Beethoven’s famous Ode to Schiller theme from his Ninth Symphony (much to the irritation of Brahms) was balanced with expertise by Koncz. The triumphant pair of cadences satisfyingly concluded one of Hong Kong Phil’s recent highlights.