Ferdinand David, the concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra when Mendelssohn was conductor, must have been quite a virtuoso for the composer to have written his Violin Concerto in E minor for him. In this wildly popular work, soloist Karen Gomyo with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra under Andreas Delfs on Saturday was up against stiff competition, Anne-Sophie Mutter having performed it with the same orchestra last year. In comparison, she balanced her less flamboyant technical skills with infectious warmth and sweetness. Her slightly prickly tone in the all-important opening was irritating; she struggled at times to be heard in the soaring high notes in the finale; and her phrasing was occasionally fractured. Yet her Andante second movement won the day as sweet lament rather than desperate wailing, offering quiet hope and joy that logically eased into the ebullient merriment of the last movement. Her bright red strapless stain dress was irrelevant to the music, but visually stunning nevertheless.

Karen Gomyo © Gabrielle Revere
Karen Gomyo
© Gabrielle Revere

Had Schumann foreseen the flak and mutilation by all and sundry his Symphony no. 4 in D minor was to attract, he would have left well alone. Having bungled its first performance in 1841 as conductor himself, he put it in the backburner for a decade before deciding to revise it. The jury is perhaps still out on whether or not his revisions were improvements – Brahms was a steadfast defender of the original, whereas Mahler tinkered with the revised version so much that he practically made it his own. Nevertheless, it is true that seldom has a composer made such a musical mountain out of a thematic molehill. Most of the four movements seem to be based on the flimsy opening theme, with few new ideas added except in the second movement (Romanze) and minutes before the end of the last. The result is emotional appeal within fairly narrow boundaries.

Adreas Delfs on Saturday showed that with a little verve and enthusiasm, it is possible to turn what could be a work of repetitive motifs into one that’s enjoyable and entertaining. He took Schumann’s tempo markings seriously, carrying the opening in his stride without making it sound ponderous, but soon quickening the pace enough to generate nervous excitement. This laid a solid foundation for fine exploration of the material in the rest of the work. The oboe and cello were rather timid kicking off the second movement, and the contribution from the concertmaster on solo violin was also hard to distinguish. The dance-like first part of the Scherzo was stately and dignified, and Delfs visibly relished the graceful restatement in the trio of material from the second movement. As the trombones came to life to help re-launch the opening material, the final movement turned shortly into a high speed race to the pulsating end with a copious dose of timpani, leaving the audience quite relieved that the tension was over.

Earlier in the evening, the concert had opened with the symphonic poem Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks by Richard Strauss, who originally conceived it as an opera. Probably still smarting from the poor reception of his first opera Guntram, he eventually settled for a shorter symphonic work. It’s easy to picture Strauss cocking a vicarious snook at critics of his opera with the help of Till Eulenspiegel, who apparently did exist in real life and died in 1350, with a tomb to prove it. Whether rogue, fool or jester, Till Eulenspiegel was decidedly irreverent, playing all sorts of tricks to upend the status quo, often showing up hypocrisy and injustice.

The orchestra on Saturday was merry enough, but perhaps a little too elegant to be really prankish and villainous. I thought the Till Eulenspiegel themes on horn and clarinet could have been articulated with more playfulness and mischief, although the orchestra itself provided outstanding symphonic support, especially in the lower strings. I hardly noticed the lyrical section which depicts Till Eulenspiegel courting pretty girls with the charming violin solo; but the climax of his trial and eventual execution stood out with the snare-drum roll punctuating forceful, in-your-face finality. Schumann will draw comfort from the fact that even Strauss was not immune to criticism for such a finely orchestrated work, as a critic is said to have commented: “No gentleman could have written that thing. It is positively scurrilous”.

All in all, Andreas Delfs and the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra performed a fine sampling of Germanic romanticism with gusto.

****1