In the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s opening concert for the 41st season, Maestro Jaap van Zweden dispensed with the usual appetiser in the fare of the evening, and launched straight into the main course – Brahms’ monumental Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor. It was like diving into the swimming pool without warming up, and it showed.

Whatever was the concerto’s emotional wellspring – devastation at the attempted suicide and death in an asylum of Robert Schumann or repressed love for his wife Clara – Brahms no doubt conceived it as an orchestral work on a grand scale. Many a soloist will do well just getting his or her instrument heard. Temptations abound for the conductor to flex his orchestral muscles. On Friday, Jaap van Zweden was suitably confident without being overwhelming, sensitive and subtle enough to be a partner to Yefim Bronfman. The pianist David didn’t quite tame the orchestral Goliath, but at least he didn’t disintegrate on contact.

Orchestral colours, especially among the strings, were a little murky at the start, as if a thin veil had descended upon them. Fortunately, this shortfall in luminosity didn’t detract from the suave romanticism of the lyrical passages. Bronfman’s technical competence was never in doubt, but his emotional immersion was questionable. Described by Brahms himself as “a portrait of Clara Schumann”, the Adagio wasn’t quite as beautiful as I would have liked. Nor did the team let their hair down enough in the romping Rondo. After all, it was supposed to have been a rollicking antithesis to the high drama of the first movement.

The pace slowed significantly after the intermission with the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The sustained murmuring in the Prelude kept us in suspense, although the intensity was less than debilitating. The build-up to the ecstatic climax in the Liebestod with the help of long arching phrases was gripping, and what a relief it was to hear the resolution to Tristan’s chord. The Orchestra is scheduled to present Das Rheingold in January; there’s still time to brush up on the luscious strings and blazing brass – Wagner’s calling cards.

Richard Strauss was born around the time Wagner composed Tristan und Isolde, and is sometimes thought to be a torchbearer for Wagner’s revolutionary ideas into the 20th century. Yet his opera Der Rosenkavalier couldn’t be more remote from Wagner’s amorphous rhythm, stretched discordant purring and sheer intensity. The Suite from the opera bears the hallmarks of some of his youthful compositions such as Don Juan several decades earlier. 

Maestro van Zweden shaped the varying contours of the suite brilliantly, capturing in full the swagger, sarcasm and humour peppered throughout the work. One could almost see the clumsiness of Baron von Ochs in twisted waltz snippets, the purity of Octavian’s love for Sophie in the ensemble playing and the Marchallin’s reluctant acceptance of her age eroding her charm. The waltzes, ebbing and flowing, reappeared in different guises to brighten the air in the second half of the Suite, eventually bringing the evening to a triumphant close.

If programming of the opening concert of the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s 41st season is anything to go by, we can expect more masterworks in the rest of the season from the German romantic repertoire, in which Jaap van Zweden is at his best.