Rimsky-Korsakov is a master story-teller. With a standard-sized Romantic orchestra that does not ask its players to adopt extended techniques, the Russian relies on the most fundamental of musical elements to transport us to distant lands. One of the group of Russian composers known as The Five, Rimsky-Korsakov was contributory in embracing exoticism as a means for the group to distinguish themselves from the more Euro-centric composers. The magical Scheherazade (1888) was the culmination of those efforts, with its success dependent on the conveyance of emotional depth, remarkable facility by the soloists and the ability to extract the underlying narrative.

Lio Kuokman and the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra
© Ka Lam | HK Phil

The Hong Kong Philharmonic rose to these challenges under the baton of Lio Kuokman, who seemed to be more in command of his players in the tender moments than in the bold. Conducting without reference to a score, Lio was able to extract a hymn-like quality from the exposed winds, after the menacing opening chords by the lower brass. Immediately following, concertmaster Jing Wang supplied the first of the recurring Scheherezade statements with exquisite execution and atmospheric projection. Other highlights of the first movement included the interpolations of the flute and the clarinet and the sonorous moments evoking the swirling seas.

However, the opening of the second movement took us to new heights. Bassoonist Benjamin Moermond presented his interpretation of the Kalandar Prince in a manner that elevated the wanderer from beggar to royal subject. The upper reaches of the instrument’s tessitura were delivered with a porcelain quality that afforded us insight into the character’s disguise. Equally memorable was principal clarinettist Andrew Simon’s cadenza passage, which proves that one can play almost imperceptibly and still achieve command of the hall.

The third movement, which features an Arabian dance, was where the conductor Lio had his greatest moments. He managed to bring forth enveloping warmth from the strings with contrasting fragments from the clarinet and flute in the form of arpeggiated sweeps. The dance was presented in a joyful manner, but it was in the return of the love theme that was initiated with the greatest delicacy that elevated the movement from the whimsical to the sublime.

The narrative of the closing movement is complex as Scheherazade tells her most stimulating story and is to learn whether the Sultan is to release her from his death threat. The solo violin opens with a scintillating twist on the Scheherazade melody that Jing Wang delivered with commanding comprehension. Other motivic material returns here which is combined in a myriad of ways to form a wondrous conclusion. The orchestra succeeded fully in demonstrating its technical acumen and illuminating both action and emotion.

The first half of the concert, by contrast, was rather pedestrian. Prokofiev’s 1918 Symphony no.1 "Classical" opened the programme, but much of the Haydnesque humour was lost. The extreme register shifts that feature in some of the melodic material in the first movement appeared more mechanical than comedic. Even the reference to the famous Mannheim ‘rocket’ was not appropriately highlighted, as the preceding passage had been constructed to peak too early.

Lio Kuokman and the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra
© Ka Lam | HK Phil

The timid interpretation fared better in the second movement as the focus here was on a clarity of line and texture. Lio exercised a reasonable degree of rubato in the third movement Gavotte, but adopted a more prankish mood for the Musette. The contrast was unsettling at times, as it disrupted the flow and brought attention to its sectionalisation. The final movement was taken at an acceptable speed but lacked the necessary crispness from the strings to deliver its pivotal energy.

The obligatory concerto on the programme was penned by Christoph Förster (1693-1745), who is somewhat unknown today but was in fact reasonably popular in his day. Horn soloist Lin Jiang had a formidable task ahead with the work's considerable passage work and the challenging echo effects in high registers. Lin is certainly an accomplished technician with well-controlled lip trills and impressive dynamic contrasts, but blemishes in the opening passages may have hindered a more confident reading of the material.

The concerto is not harmonically rich, nor particularly fulfilling, and so we are left to the soloist to sustain our interest. Lin managed to succeed in providing a well-controlled lyricism in the second movement, although the upper register did sound a little forced at times. The final movement romp sees the horn function in more of its traditional fashion with galloping references and hunting calls. Extraordinarily difficult passages abound here to which Lin generally met the demands, but not always with rhythmic consistency. The closing portion in which Lin opted for the cuivré style of brass playing was a welcomed timbral distinction.