Following a cracking recital in Hong Kong last weekend, the young Turkish cellist Jamal Aliyev returned to City Hall on Saturday for his debut with Hong Kong Sinfonietta. Some concertgoers, including this reviewer, had hoped for the "meatiness" of a cello concerto in this setting, but the title Cellomania was enough of an indication that showstoppers were in order. And that was fine, for the bits and bobs were of the highest quality.

Jamal Aliyev and Wing-sie Yip
© HK Sinfonietta Ltd

Aliyev’s thoughtful musicality and the mesmerising sound that he extracts from his Giuseppe Guarneri “filius Andreae” cello from 1700 practically guaranteed that hearts would soon be won over, especially in the expansive adaptation of Bach’s revered Air from the Orchestral Suite no.3. The long queue of post-performance autograph seekers in City Hall's lobby was proof in itself. But even the hardest hearts were surely moved by Aliyev’s seductive playing of "Lascia ch’io pianga" from Handel’s opera Rinaldo as he unlocked glimpses of musicality that seemed well beyond his years.

The highly virtuosic works on the program were simply jaw-dropping. Aliyev made light work of Paganini’s fiendishly tricky Variations on One String on a Theme by Rossini, with enviable up-bow staccato and harmonics that were spot on and as clean as a whistle.

For those who missed the recital there was a second chance to experience Aliyev’s playful contrasts of slow and fast tempi in typical csárdás fashion in the orchestral version of David Popper’s Hungarian Rhapsody. The Swan by Saint-Saëns was not only a befitting encore for the French May Arts Festival co-presenters but also a heartfelt conclusion to the brilliant Hong Kong debut of Jamal Aliyev, a shooting star to watch out for.

Sinfonietta also greatly impressed with their main offerings. The slick opener was a dashing rendition of the Roman Carnival Overture led by emeritus conductor Wing-sie Yip. The quasi "repurposed" material from Berlioz’s carnival scene of his then less than successful opera Benvenuto Cellini was marked by spritely strings in the saltarello rhythms, crisp wind and horn interjections, and a beautifully phrased English horn solo early on from Mami Fukuhara.

Georges Bizet’s sparkling Symphony in C "Roma" was equally apt in rounding off Sinfonietta’s joyful program following months of pandemic-induced restrictions. Players maintained their solid rhythmical pulse with Wing-sie firmly at the helm, demonstrating articulation in the strings that was both neat and focused in the dashing outer Allegro vivo and Allegro vivace movements. Both violin sections offered ample warmth and resonance in their unison song in the Adagio, and oboist Kenneth Sze Yu-hey also blossomed in a beautifully sinewy solo. 

Now finally rid of those dreaded social distancing dividers, players in the wind and brass sections were clearly reunited in their ensemble on Saturday. If conductor Wing-sie’s parting words – “Tonight was a just a warm up!” – were anything to go by, the Sinfonietta has even more goodies up their sleeve.