Fortunately, there are a lot of good classical musicians in South Korea. So when the Philharmonia’s regular guest conductor Han-Na Chang got ill and cancelled her appearance at the closing concert for Korea Cultural Centre UK’s season, they were able to draft in a last minute Korean replacement in the shape of Shiyeon Sung, laureate of major conducting competitions and sometime Assistant Conductor at the Boston Symphony. Despite what must have been an appallingly constrained preparation time, Sung did an impressively steady job – but perhaps a shade too controlled: I won’t deny that I had hoped for more romantic abandon.

Shiyeon Sung © Yongbin Park
Shiyeon Sung
© Yongbin Park

Most particularly, that applied to Sunwook Kim’s reading of the Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor. Kim is a lovely pianist in the gentle, lyrical passages; his phrasing can sweep gently over you and leave you with an intense sense of relaxation. In fact, his encore, Debussy’s Clair de lune, was delightful, one of the best things in the concert. But the Grieg has other features: the portentous crashed chords of the opening and a big build-up to a final climax that should leave you with a sense of glorious achievement – the summit of the mountain gained whence you can gaze on the fjords below, perhaps, Grieg having been an enthusiastic lover of the outdoors. Kim, Sung and the Philharmonia delivered good balance and plenty of brightness, but they didn’t approach the thrills of which the music is capable.

The opening work, Rossini’s overture to William Tell, had promised more. While it’s most famous, at least for Americans above a certain age, for the concluding Lone Ranger gallop, the three sections that precede it are wonderful, each in its distinctive way, and Sung and the Philharmonia played them with flair. Proceedings were kicked off with a curt nod from the conductor to principal cellist Timothy Walden, the cue for fluid, elegant lines of the cello solo that created the calm before the storm, helped by a neat pizzicato alternation between two double basses and timpani rolls of distant thunder. When the storm arrived, it was huge: the Philharmonia’s trombones were on superb form and went on to produce the best of the thrills for the whole concert. The flute and cor anglais solos for the ranz des vaches contributed nicely, as did distant horn calls: finally, without undue histrionics, Sung whipped up the orchestra into a well paced closing gallop. The key to a good Rossini crescendo is not in the loud bits (ultimately, there’s only so loud you can get) but in the relaxation between them, which has to be sufficiently well disguised to trick the ear into thinking that the crescendo is continuous when it’s actually anything but. Sung handled these with precise control.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 5 in E minor is another work filled with colour, and another one where the relaxation between climaxes is one of the keys to one’s enjoyment: Tchaikovsky is expert at taking your emotional level gently down, only to return with cascading waves of ever greater intensity. The virtuosic trombones and timpani apart, the most successful part of last night’s performance was in the shaping of the strings, with a clean sound but plenty of nicely crafted swell in the second movement, elegant charm in the waltz of the third. What was missing was the individual splashes of colour from wind players: things were accurate enough, but woodwind phrases were sometimes lost in the wash, and individual solos lacked anything special to make you sit up and listen or lean back and swoon. The final Allegro vivace, which can close the work on a huge high, was pleasant but lacked fire.

Leaving the hall after a suitably Korean encore, a string arrangement of the folksong Arirang, I overheard the praise of “what a lovely programme”. And indeed it was: these are all lovely pieces of music and all were competently played. But both the Grieg and the Tchaikovsky left room for more.

***11