It’s not often that halfway through a concert I feel that I’ve already got the full evening’s value, but it happened on Friday with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta under visiting conductor Christoph Poppen. According to the introduction by Maestro Poppen at the start of the concert, Webern’s String Quartet (1905) draws its inspiration from two sources: a triptych by Giovanni Segantini and the work of mystic and theologian Jakob Böhme, around the themes of life, nature and death. In Maestro Poppen’s own orchestral adaptation of Webern’s Quartet, string players from the Sinfonietta drew us into an eerie world of tranquillity in slow motion, then adeptly raised our spirits with a melody of exquisite beauty, and eventually dragged us into a quiet stupor, presumably towards death. The subdued tone of the orchestra and the conductor’s measured pace fused life, nature and death into a whole to be accepted and relished, but not feared.

Nareh Arghamanyan © Julia Wesely
Nareh Arghamanyan
© Julia Wesely

The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43 was Rachmaninov’s way of showing oomph as a composer to the world after a period of low productivity while trying to make ends meet as an émigré concert pianist in the U.S. Soloist Nareh Arghamanyan’s scintillating performance would have made him proud. Her display of versatility brought surprising freshness to this audience-friendly workhorse in the repertoire, imbuing the work with unbridled and infectious verve. Impishly launching into the first few variations, she soon settled down into an air of majestic dignity. She undoubtedly dominated the conversation until variation 16, with the orchestra hardly able to get a word in edgeways. She captured the mood changes with superb variety in pace and emphasis – feathery light in her touch in variations 11 and 12, but heavy-handed as needed in variations 13 and 14.

A liberal dose of rubato in the famous variation 18 was a little self-indulgent, perhaps, but Ms Arghamanyan looked as if she was fully absorbed in it, so why not? As the orchestra asserted itself with a stream of crystalline luminosity and suitable dashes of contrast in colour, soloist didn’t retreat into her own shell, but played more of an equal partner. Together they marched into the final variations with pulsating vigour, screeching to a halt on the edge of a cliff to finish. The audience’s rapt attention was rewarded with a generous set of three encores. Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance reaffirmed her technical prowess; Grünfeld’s Soirée de Vienne adapted from Strauss’ Die Fledermaus, her impish sense of humour; and finally Black Earth by Fazil Say, her championship of contemporary music.

After the intermission, I was satisfied that however Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony turned out, the evening would have been well worth it. Then the Sinfonietta regaled us with a further flood of musical refinement. Meant to record his impressions of Scotland, the Symphony no. 3 was not finished until more than a decade after Mendelssohn visited it, containing scant reference to material distinctly Scottish. Parts of it are repetitive and can be tedious if improperly handled. Maestro Poppen held a tight rein on pacing and kept things moving, but never forgetting to stop regularly for breaths of lyricism.

The enchanting melody after the angst-ridden slow introduction in the first movement was played with subtlety and confident poise, the strings cruising with a polished tone and the woodwinds emerging as leading lights. Shivering strings in the second movement gave way to a light and galloping theme cheerily played by Principal Clarinet Johnny Fong and soon picked up by commanding strings. 

One might be temporarily mistaken to think that the Adagio movement draws inspiration from the line “Wishfully I look and languish / In that bonnie face o' thine” in Robert Burns’ The Bonnie Wee Thing, but the hard-hitting low strings would soon put paid to that thought. The mood at last changed in the final movement into joyous triumph, breaking free from memories of the blood-stained history of Scotland Mendelssohn brought back from  Holyrood Palace. The strings were luscious and uplifting, soaring to a splendid close.

It was truly an evening of delights and bonuses far exceeding expectations – the best with the Sinfonietta in recent memory. Bravo Christoph Poppen and Nareh Arghamanyan!