That Shostakovich symphonies feature regularly on Hong Kong Philharmonic’s concert calendar is no coincidence. Given the orchestra’s sound, the Russian’s repertoire seems to fit like a glove and under Jaap van Zweden’s direction they pull it off consistently well. The lightweight and “un-Soviet” Ninth was a fine example at Hong Kong’s Cultural Centre on Saturday, and much like their performance of the same symphony in late 2019, the orchestra’s polished playing and their “steely” Shostakovich string sound matched the mischievous and athletic music to a tee. 

Jaap van Zweden conducts the Hong Kong Philharmonic
© Ka Lam | HK Phil

The quick-witted, cheeky aspects of the opening Allegro were brilliant. Whistling piccolo virtuosity from Linda Stuckey impressed here, as did the fabulously pompous trombones in their mini “fanfares”. Andrew Simon’s clarinet aptly captured a darker lyrical mood in the Moderato, and when the Russian circus-like music of the Presto broke out, brass playing of the highest calibre was the order of the day. Nitiphum Bamrungbanthum’s laser-precise solo trumpet was an exemplary example. Comedy was off the table though in the Largo – a movement that is more typical of the wartime symphonies – and the jagged and grim outbursts from the trombones were frightening, lending Benjamin Moermond’s plaintive recitative-like bassoon solos that followed a special vulnerability. As the humour was turned up again for the Allegretto, the bassoonist’s devilish folk-like tune was played infectiously and picked up neatly by van Zweden and the players for a fabulous and manic final romp.

The first half of Saturday’s concert seemed lightyears from Shostakovich’s world. The Four Sea Interludes that peppers Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes opened the HK Phil’s concert with much expanse. The breaking of waves suggested by the well-executed high violin ripple effects that begins the Dawn interlude may have erred towards edginess, but the low brooding brass depicted the quiet yet powerful seas of Suffolk’s coastline idyllically. Horns signalled the church bells in Sunday Morning  with brilliance and the muscular swelling from the viola section was excellent. As the gorgeous Moonlight interlude gathered momentum, the lower strings were strong in their pulsating depiction of choppy seas. The ensuing Storm was near terrifying in this reading by van Zweden, with deft timpani work by James Boznos throughout. The discrepancies between the first violins and wind in the stiller section where Grimes dreams of finding a peaceful harbour were minor and hardly detracted from the forceful resurgence of the storm that followed.

Jan Vogler, Jaap van Zweden and the Hong Kong Philharmonic
© Ka Lam | HK Phil

Unfortunately, the sailing was none too smooth for Jan Vogler in Elgar’s nostalgic, bittersweet Cello Concerto in E minor. Rhythmic instability between soloist and orchestra led to some hit and miss intonation by the German cellist as he climbed the higher registers in the quicker tempi. But on the bright side, Vogler’s rich palette of vocal-like sonorities was beautiful in the warmer visions of the first movement and his rendition of the exquisitely tender aria-like Adagio was touching and heartfelt