The central character in Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes is a fisherman outcast contending with the wrath of his community. The score for the Four Sea Interludes, extracted from it, weaves often threadbare orchestral parts into a menacing mosaic of moods in the story and conditions which the characters have to battle. Screeching strings in the first interlude, “Dawn”, simulate the howling wind of the Suffolk coast; horns imitate the sound of church bells in “Sunday Morning”; bassoons and lower strings portray the lull of “Moonlight”; and blaring brass and thumping timpani add to the fury in “Storm”. Quite rightly, Johannes Wildner and the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s approach was precise and austere, rendering the interludes realistic depictions, enough to scare anyone off the East coast of England.

Johannes Wildner © Dieter Nagl
Johannes Wildner
© Dieter Nagl

Debussy began writing La Mer, his “symphonic sketches for orchestra”, far from the sea, but nevertheless put the finishing touches to it in Eastbourne along the English Channel coast. Yet this late English influence didn’t bring him any closer to Britten’s outlook. Unlike the pointed economy of the Interludes, La Mer is rich in colour, subtle in tone and suggestive in content, its somewhat amorphous structure conjuring up elusive imagery.

Harps, rumbling strings and English horn rise from an initial stupor to a bright awakening in the first sketch, “De l’aube à midi sur la mer” (“From Dawn to Noon on the Sea”). Like waves in the ocean, the music keeps moving, although not towards a specific destination. The second sketch, “Jeux de vagues” (“The Waves at Play”) picks up pace, with a sense of urgency and increasing brightness. Harps and the triangle provide occasional suggestions of the water shimmering in the sunlight. The final sketch, “Dialogue du vent et de la mer” (“Dialogue between the Wind and the Sea”), could be more accurately described as a battle between the brass and strings. These two sections of the orchestra sound as if they were in a tug-of-war on a giant surfboard in the ocean – rocking, shoving and pulling, until they all fall into the water in a splash.

The Hong Kong Philharmonic never shook off the austerity and precision of the Four Sea Interludes in the transition to La Mer. Although it grasped the generally undulating drift of the work, I was hoping for more sensuality, subtlety and finesse. It was certainly too forceful in the second sketch. Fortunately, by the third sketch, a strong sense of motion was able to mask some of the shortcomings.

With such a well-trodden path in the repertoire as Brahms’ Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor, one doesn’t go to a performance expecting much that’s new. Yet Garrick Ohlsson managed to surprise me with smoothness I had not heard in other performances. His fingering was so silky that the notes rose and fell as if tracing the line of a wavy graph. Even the clearly struck staccato chords sounded as if they flowed together in a continuous stream.

Structurally formal, emotionally diverse and musically innovative, this concerto of symphonic proportions has something for everyone to enjoy at different levels – the expert musicologist has plenty to analyse, while the casual listener can simply enjoy it viscerally. Ohlsson had his vision clearly focused on the emotions and musicality.

In the long first movement, Ohlsson handled his unassuming entry after the extended orchestral onslaught with poise – much as a lion tamer would appear in front of a roaring animal – taking us on a long journey away from the fury of the orchestra before bringing us back to an engaging dialogue with it. My only disappointment was that the winds sounded a little intrusive at times. The second movement is not so much reverie as a prayer. After the feverish activity of the first movement, this is a welcome walk in the park beside the placid lake on a lazy afternoon. Ohlsson’s touch was sensitive but his phrasing was luminous. The Rondo is a romp of quick steps and swirling sensations, with orchestra and soloist joining hands in a spree.

The audience was clearly delighted with Ohlsson, who reciprocated with three encores of works by Chopin and Scriabin. By this time, we had all forgiven the orchestra for its lacklustre La Mer.