It sounds almost like heresy to describe a Beethoven composition as “light”, but it would be appropriate for the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra’s concert on Saturday. His Symphony No. 6 in F, Op. 68, Pastoral, was like soufflé to the crème brûlée of Elgar’s Cello Concerto and Wagner’s Tannhäuser overture. Placing the Wagner overture at the end was a clever stroke in programming that prevented the Beethoven work from becoming an anti-climax.

Paul Watkins © Nina Large
Paul Watkins
© Nina Large

Beethoven’s sixth symphony doesn’t set out to make strong intellectual statements, but it does make demands on the orchestra for finesse and lucidity. Mark Wigglesworth’s rendition had bright moments, but did not contain enough contrast to make it truly outstanding. The tone was also a tad less bucolic than I would have liked.

The subtitle for the first movement, “Awakening of Cheerful Feelings Upon Arrival in the Country”, calls for a gentle opening that gradually builds up to brimming euphoria. Mr Wigglesworth was a little hurried and too emphatic at the beginning, reducing the contrast with the sense of contentment at the end, and blurring the elegant construction of the movement. The genius of Beethoven as master-builder, creating an elaborate structure out of four-note epigrams, received scant illustration.

The second movement, “Scene by the Brook”, stood out for its sense of fluidity which perfectly captured the gentle whirring of the water. Underpinned by the murmuring bassoon, the flute, oboe and clarinet did a credible job representing birdsong, although for fleeting moments the flute was a little jagged.

The orchestra tackled the third movement, “Merry Gathering of Country Folk”, with appropriate verve, bringing alive the essence of earthiness and simplicity in rural communities. The fourth movement, “Thunderstorm”, on the other hand, was not nearly turbulent enough. The orchestra saved the day with plenty of lyricism in the final movement, “Shepherd’s Song: Happy and Thankful Feelings after the Storm”, bringing the work to a joyful close.

Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 confronts even the most confident soloist with two formidable challenges. Jacqueline du Pré’s definitive interpretation sets a high bar; and the opening solo statement can be a treacherous trap. Paul Watkins presented a credible alternative to du Pré overall, but was nearly caught by the trap.

During the First World War, shocked by the horror of the atrocities, Elgar’s output all but ground to a halt. His recuperation in the countryside in Sussex after removal of his tonsils, shortly before the end of the war, gave him impetus to resume composing. Sketches he drew during this time grew into the cello concerto which premièred in October 1919.

The opening cello solo recitative summarises Elgar’s anguish at the senselessness of war. It’s an ardent cry to God for an explanation. Mr Watkins’ treatment plunged the depth of despair, but had a tone of accusation I suspect Elgar, as a Catholic, probably didn’t intend. Beyond that, his account was admirable. The clarinets were comforting in their response to the cello; for the rest of the first movement, the orchestra was taut but graceful and expressive.

The solo cello in the second movement, Lento – Allegro molto, skipped energetically in a repartee with the orchestra, but at times was hardly audible. The soloist and orchestra delivered the full lyricism of the cathartic third movement, showcasing Elgar’s European flavour, which aligns him more with Sibelius and Nielsen than Vaughn Williams and Delius.

Soloist and orchestra were invigorated at the beginning of the final movement, but the episode turned out to be a deceptive and short-lived respite. The soloist soon slowed to wistful brooding, returning to the despondency of the work’s opening, with the orchestra cutting him off to bring the concerto to an abrupt end.

Elgar’s Cello Concerto is a soul-cleansing work, and I felt chastened by Paul Watkins and the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s fine interpretation.

In the final work of the evening, the overture to Tannhäuser, the orchestra was lucid in expounding the fine architecture Wagner painstakingly crafted. The chant on horns and woodwinds was taken up in turn by the lower strings and brass, underpinned by the rest of the orchestra in a monotonous and nondescript rhythm. A short interlude of nervous and frenetic energy soon broke into a regal declaration of confidence. The repetition of the opening chant was subdued, soon taken up by trombones in overwhelming grandeur to close. In Wagner, the brass often defines the quality of a performance, and on Saturday the brass in the Hong Kong Philharmonic was superb.

***11