In terms of Mozart’s piano concerti, K482 is known less for its intrinsic musical quality than its predecessor (K467) and its successor (K488), but it is more famous due to the unusual circumstances of its public introduction. Finishing it in Vienna on 16 December 1785, Mozart appeared as soloist in its first performance the same evening, inserted between the acts of Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf’s oratorio Esther. In its more formal première a week later, the audience demanded an encore of the Andante movement, which was almost unheard of at the time. It is also the longest of his piano concerti, lasting some 35 minutes, and the first to involve clarinets in the orchestration.

Melvyn Tan © Sheila Rock
Melvyn Tan
© Sheila Rock

Like skates on ice, soloist Melvyn Tan’s mastery of the keyboard is slick – whether this is always right for Mozart is open to question. Nevertheless, his brimming vitality and exuberance often left the Hong Kong Philharmonic a little out of breath on Saturday evening. For a start, the woodwinds fumbled and were too conspicuous at the beginning of the first movement; the interplay between soloist and orchestra was also jagged at times.

The wind ensemble picked itself up in the Andante, with some outstanding playing by the flute and bassoons. Mr Tan was graceful and sensitive, although I did detect traces of Chopinesque sentimentality. Orchestra and soloist came together at last in the jovial final movement, handling the transition into and out of the cantabile digression with finesse. The encore, the final movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata, was full of roaring energy, but fell short on dynamic contrast.

Like Mozart’s K482 concerto, Shotaskovich’s Symphony no. 7 in C major, “Leningrad” made its first appearance under unusual circumstances, but the scale of the orchestra is double that of the Mozart concerto. The path to its international première was tortuous, made possible by intricate espionage activities. Completed during the Nazis’ siege of Leningrad (St Petersburg), the symphony was microfilmed and smuggled to London via Tehran and Cairo to appear at the Proms in 1942.

The symphony suffered a chequered fate after World War II, attracting copious discussion about its potentially contradictory intentions. In addition to being a rallying cry for resistance against the Nazis, is the irony a furtive swipe at Stalin’s brutal regime? Or is it a hallmark of Soviet propaganda? Until the end of the Cold War, it spent years in the wilderness. Critics have also questioned the artistic merit of the work, with Virgil Thompson claiming that it was written “for the slow-witted, the not very musical and the distracted”.

The symphony is a monumental work, with fine moments, flaws and structural oddities. After an impassioned statement of pain on strings and superb passages for woodwinds, notably the piccolo, the first movement soon moves into the war theme, which is a lesson in orchestration reminiscent of Ravel’s Bolero. After fragments of the motif have been tossed from one instrument to another, with the snare drum providing the rhythmic backdrop, the strings break into some Gershwinian digressions before the horns throw their weight behind a crescendo. As spine-chilling fear sets in with deterioration into grotesque dissonance, additional brass in the gallery above the stage add fuel to the fire. Quiet returns with an outburst of lyricism on strings, after which the movement glides to a halt with the first five notes of the war theme in a whoosh.

The second movement is an ethereal dance with some fine material for the oboe, harp and bass clarinet. The Adagio third movement opens with a charming introduction on winds and harp, interrupted by jarring and wailing strings which give way to soaring flutes. Lyrical, almost serenading strings that introduce the last movement soon break out into broad cries of anguish again, with the bass clarinet sprinkling further sombre colour. Horns joining in after a strident march make for some amorphous and congested loudness. At this point, the movement begins to whine and sound somewhat tedious as it writhes to close.

Conductor Lawrence Renes led the Hong Kong Philharmonic to deliver a taut and gripping but not overwrought account of this demanding symphony. There was sufficient emphasis on pathos and grand gestures without mushy chest-beating. On clear display were the amazing stamina of the orchestra and the conductor’s deep respect for the composer. At about 70 minutes, the orchestra’s pacing was just right.