Many Hong Kong Philharmonic concerts in the 2011-2012 season have descriptions attached to them. The one for Friday was “Story Time.” The stories of the first and last works on the programme, Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite and Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov were clear enough; though that of the Mozart Piano Concerto no. 9 in E flat, K271, was a little more obscure.

Robert Spano, © Andrew Eccles
Robert Spano,
© Andrew Eccles

Among the many qualities of the Mother Goose Suite by Maurice Ravel, what fascinates me most is its fluidity. The generous use of legato seems to carry the listener along in a gently lolling motion, like a boat ride in a lake. There is enough action for the music to be interesting, but not too much for there to be a sense of hurly-burly.

Under the delicate touch of guest conductor Robert Spano, the ride with the Hong Kong Philharmonic was relaxed and entrancing. The opening “Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant” (“Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty”), placid and unassuming, was barely audible. The solo oboe introduced the protagonist in “Petit Poucet” (“Tom Thumb”) dropping bread crumbs to find his way back, as noisy birds played by the woodwinds pecked them up. The racket in “Laideronnette, Impératrice des Pagodes” (“Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas”) portrayed the Oriental Princess taking a bath with the help of tactless porcelain figurines – a somewhat grotesque picture.

Concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich excelled in “Les entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête” (“Conversations of Beauty and the Beast”), his tone refined and elegant in a duet with the harp. The final movement, a walk in “Le Jardin féerique” (“The Fairy Garden”), was a poignant reminder of the ethereal innocence of childhood.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 9 in E flat, “Jeunehomme” occupies an important position in the canon. The solo piano enters in the second measure: a device that would not appear again until Beethoven’s fourth concerto. The role of the soloist is also elevated in this movement, to a point where it engages in proper dialogue with the orchestra as an equal.

The name given to this work by a couple of French scholars was shrouded in mystery for over a century, before musicologist Michael Lorenz declared in 2003 that the proper name should be “Jenamy”, the married name of the daughter of Mozart’s friend Jean George Noverre. Apparently, Mozart had been impressed enough by her piano skills to dedicate the concerto to her.

The soloist on Friday, young pianist Hong Xu, showed considerable promise initially. Unhurried and balanced in the first movement, he looked as if he was mouthing the phrases in a trance, a reminder of Mitsuko Uchida. His interaction with the orchestra was steadfast, but not overly assertive. It’s a pity that he faltered a little in the cadenza, spoiling what would otherwise have been a perfect movement. He seemed to have lost confidence thereafter, lacking depth in the highly expressive Andantino, and failing to highlight the unusual insertion of the slow minuet in the final movement.

The story of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, about a cuckolded sultan who resorts to daily execution of a woman he has just slept with, is quite brutal; but like the tales that Scheherazade weaves to escape execution, the music is colourful, dramatic and even good-humoured at times. Mr. Igor Yuzefovich again shone in solo passages depicting Scheherazade often described as “sinuous.” His supple treatment, together with the harp arpeggios, brought out all the nuances Rimsky-Korsakov would have intended for his heroine.

In the meantime, the orchestra wound its way through a variety of dramatic musical turns in the first movement, from the burly lower strings characterising the Sultan, to various figurations simulating the undulating waves of the ocean Sinbad navigates and his strange encounters. The exotic Arabian themes were teased out meticulously, as if peeling an onion, in the second movement, the “Kalender Prince.” The winding melody in the third movement, “The Young Prince and Princess,” was tender and plaintive at times. The last movement, “Festival of Baghdad,” brought the action to a climactic crescendo in breakneck speed, as the solo violin emerged with Scheherazade escaping the fate of death.

In this “Story Time” concert, Robert Spano and the Hong Kong Philharmonic had the children in the audience raving. They were the best judges of the concert.