Though it’s still anybody’s guess who will succeed Jaap van Zweden as music director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra from 2024 on, the rumours are rife as yet another illustrious guest conductor took to the podium of the Cultural Centre’s Concert Hall on Friday evening. This time, eminent Estonian conductor Paavo Järvi led the HK Phil in a superb account of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony. It had all the majesty and contours of a mighty river – as the Finnish master himself likened it to – and was engaging from start to finish.

Paavo Järvi
© Keith Hiro | HK Phil

From the symphony’s very ‘seed’ – sown beautifully by the horns – to the restless rustling of tremolando that the strings executed with refinement, the opening movement and each of its sub-sections showcased Sibelius’ great inventiveness. Benjamin Moermond’s pensive solo bassoon emerged with beauty from an extended eerie hush, trumpets were spot-on in jubilantly recalling the original theme. With poise and precision, Järvi – without score – unleashed bundles of pent-up energy from the players in the concluding Presto. The rustic jauntiness that marked the Andante mosso second movement was charming, and the lovely chirping woodwind soli and dancing string playing only enhanced the cheerfulness.

Paavo Järvi and the HK Phil
© Keith Hiro | HK Phil

Though much of the shimmering string tremolo was highly atmospheric in the finale, it did lose focus in the first violins later on. Untidiness was soon rectified, however, and some tightly-controlled ricochet bowing impressed throughout the strings. The first appearance of Sibelius’ beloved “Swan Hymn” in the horns, inspired by the vision of 16 swans as they took flight at the composer’s country residence, was glorious. In troubled waters too, when the mood turned ominous, Järvi managed to coax plenty of anguished beauty from the orchestra. The HK Phil’s brass players excelled often. The hushed reinstatement of the Swan Hymn in the trumpets was precise and dissonances were brought out with conviction as brightness and optimism emerged in the music. The six staggered chords of the final cadence, each separated by silence, were electrifying, literally hammering home the sheer originality of Sibelius’ conclusion.

Beginning with the orchestral battalion required for Richard Strauss’ symphonic fragment Josephs Legende was akin to starting a feast with the main course. Nonetheless, it was a sumptuous slice of Strauss. Järvi extracted rich sonorities from the HK Phil, proving the pared-down ballet fragment a worthy stand-alone piece, despite the composer’s struggle with its composition, even declaring, “This God-seeker Joseph – he’s going to be a hell of an effort!” But for the pulsating surges in the HK Phil strings, the fine solo playing (in various violin and cello desk combinations), the poignant harp playing (though tinny sounding from the upper balcony), the brilliant woodwind playing, and the brass’ signature precision, it was a luscious and satisfying feast of sound.

Zee Zee (Zuo Zhang)
© Keith Hiro | HK Phil

The artistry of Chinese pianist Zee Zee (Zuo Zhang) was then on full display in Liszt’s Piano Concerto no. 2. It was not only the energetic dexterity of Zee Zee’s sparkling runs or the perfectly-nailed cascading double octaves that impressed. In the more reflective and subtler moments she also showed much intimate tenderness, relishing the playful give-and-take and gentle intimacy. This was no more apparent than in the lyrical Allegro moderato in duet with Richard Bamping and his rich and expressive cello solo.