For the opening concert in the 42nd Hong Kong Arts Festival, the Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne chose a programme that sharply contrasted two opposite approaches to orchestration. Mozart pared the orchestra in his Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K622 to strings and pairs of horns, flutes and bassoons, whereas Strauss went the whole hog in An Alpine Symphony, Op.64, throwing in rarely heard instruments such as heckelphone and wind machine. The size of the orchestra in the latter work – four times that of the former – was particularly striking from my vantage point in the balcony of the Cultural Centre Concert Hall, with a bird’s-eye view of the stage. 

It is a common belief that Mozart wrote his Clarinet Concerto for his friend Anton Stadler to play on the basset clarinet, which reaches a couple of tones lower than the standard version, but the autograph score has been lost, possibly pawned by Stadler together with his portmanteau. The draft of a concerto for basset horn in G which mirrors the opening of the clarinet concerto adds confusion. Completed two months before Mozart’s death, its character is unusually reticent and reflective.

Taking care to use a light touch, conductor Markus Stenz and the Gürzenich Orchestra laid a smooth layer of intimate and unassuming accompaniment on which soloist Sabine Meyer tiptoed with a luscious but delicate tone. Her phrasing was impeccable and her navigation of the leaps and dives between the high and low registers of the instrument was akin to a skier on an undulating slope. Like friends who know each other well, soloist and orchestra seamlessly finished each other’s sentences.  The tempo in the Adagio was a little on the fast side, dampening the feeling of wistfulness and resignation. 

Whether taken at the programmatic or the philosophical level, Richard Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony is a magnificent work, one in which competent conductors hope to showcase their diverse skills and many members of the orchestra who would normally sit on the benches get to play. Completed at the beginning of 1915, it is a confluence of several ideas germinating in Strauss’s mind over many years. As his recollection of the drenching experience of a schoolboy expedition in the mountains, its origin dates back to 1879. It is also said to be his reaction to the suicide of the artist Karl Stauffer-Bern in 1891. The scale of the work suggests that it could be a paean to the world view of Mahler, who died in 1911. Then there is the nagging undercurrent of Nietzschean philosophy manifested in a day’s journey conquering nature, the composer having given the title “Antichrist” to an early draft.

The orchestra tackled the bright passages beautifully: the glorious and majestic “Sunrise”, with all sections of the orchestra in full blast; palpable exhilaration in “On the Summit” and vivid depiction of nature’s forces in “Thunder and Storm, Descent”. Individual wind players seized their moments in the various sections midway through the work. The brass, overwhelming in number, both on and off stage, was unnervingly boisterous. The strings overflowed with lyricism to the point of decadence.

In parts of the performance, I felt that Markus Stenz released some of the elements too freely, losing his way in the maze a little, almost literally straying “Through Thickets and Undergrowth on the Wrong Parth” and slipping in “On the Glacier”. At times he seemed to have difficulty moving along, almost as if pushing a cart uphill. This occasional episodic meandering made me wonder whether he had a unified vision for the work that reflected a consistent interpretation of Strauss’s intentions. Nevertheless, the sheer scale of the work and the variety of orchestral colour were more than enough to keep me on the edge of my seat, content to be swept along by the drift of the moment.

The rest of the audience seemed to be of the same mind and applauded so enthusiastically that there were two encores. The orchestra’s demonstration of youthful vigour and sense of movement in the first of these, Don Juan – one of Strauss’s early works in the genre – was a fascinating antithesis to the ponderous Alpine Symphony.