A flying twist of the wrist here, a suspended arm there and both hands in unison hanging poised in the air. Dancer or conductor? Neither. Lang Lang was back in town. It was probably the combination of the Chinese star’s long-awaited return to the Hong Kong stage since his left-arm tendonitis back in 2017 and the recent weeks of peace in the city that explained the full-house at the Cultural Centre’s Concert Hall on Thursday evening. Whatever the reason, Lang Lang (and Beethoven) were the names on everyone’s lips, and for an embattled city, it was certainly a good thing.

Lang Lang
© Ka Lam | HK Phil

Flamboyant gestures aside, Lang Lang’s dexterity and touch at the keys is something to behold, for even the late and great Nikolaus Harnoncourt turned to the pianist during a rehearsal of Mozart concertos with the Vienna Philharmonic and declared: “You are a wizard!”. On this occasion, with Jaap van Zweden at the helm of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Lang Lang conjured more wizardry in an eccentric reading of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 2. There was certainly much to admire in his rendition of the Second – a work, given its inherent humour, very well-suited to his whimsical creativity. With an air of nonchalance, the pianist lent the Allegro con brio a buoyant elegance, aided by deft and well-balanced opening figures from van Zweden and the HK Phil. Most striking was his take on Beethoven’s cadenza – a quasi out-of-place extreme workout of the opening theme – full of quirkiness, neither too serious nor laboured and largely a mere stroll in the park for the Chinese soloist. The Adagio was fully laden with dreamy moments, none more stunning than the ethereal Sotto voce in the pianist’s vocal-like cadenza and the final sighs from the strings. Lang Lang often tested the boundaries of musical eccentricity and seemed to have a ball with the Haydn-inspired Rondo finale, extracting maximum cheeky wit from the angular 6/8 rhythms, albeit unpredictably – and on one occasion catching the winds completely off guard. But no harm done, Lang Lang’s playing entertained and his thoughtful musicality shone brightly.

The concert began with the more austere and weighty side of Beethoven, with the heroic and dramatic late middle-period Overture from Egmont, Op.84. The rousing and impressively taut playing by the Hongkongers under van Zweden in this rendering certainly augured well for the symphonic delight that followed intermission.

Lang Lang and Jaap van Zweden
© Ka Lam | HK Phil

Jumping back a decade from Egmont, Beethoven’s Symphony no. 1 in C major remains one of the shining examples of youthful optimism and bold experimentation. Van Zweden generated fabulous energy from the players, showing top precision in their use of sforzandi across the board. With that, and with the conductor’s well-considered tempi, Thursday’s performance seemed to sit so well that one felt a strong and almost comforting sense of symmetric satisfaction. The homogenous pick-up to the Allegro con brio following the “wrong key” sequences of the Adagio helped the first movement to chug along with inherent merriment. Elegance and poise marked the second movement, Andante cantabile con moto, even if a handful of first and second violin entries felt all too present. Beethoven’s revolutionary Menuetto: Allegro molto e vivace (a Scherzo is born!) was also paced to perfection by van Zweden, never pushing his players, allowing them to relish its edgy contours. When the final Adagio teaser expertly gave way to brilliantly buoyant playing in the exuberant Finale, one could but only scoff at the ridiculous notion that Beethoven was humourless.