The pictures in the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance on Friday, dubbed “Pictures from Russia”, were clear, perfectly hued and daubed with rich colour. The command that conductor Carolyn Kuan held over the Orchestra produced an evening of electric excitement.

© Michael Garner
© Michael Garner

The three themes of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture are well known, as is the fact that he revised the work three times over ten years. Lending Tchaikovsky a sympathetic ear when he struggled with his symphonic poem Fatum, Balakirev suggested that Tchaikovsky should write something based on a play by Shakespeare, even giving him ideas about the structure.

Carolyn Kuan firmly gripped the undulating dynamics of the composition. Her treatment of the material was crisp and transparent. The prophetic whining on woodwinds and low strings gradually opened up to cold string pizzicato after a short comment from the harp. This account of the story by Friar Laurence was sombre and impassioned.

The rhythm in the duel between the woodwinds and strings, signifying the feud between the Montague and Capulet clans, brought to life the vehemence of lunging rapiers. In a considerable slowdown in pace, a snapshot of the love theme quickly followed this intermediate climax. The flutes and horns stood out in a soaring development of the theme, as Romeo and Juliet enjoyed their romantic respite, only to be rudely interrupted by a brief return of the intrusive duel rhythm. A variation of the love theme in double slow time now sounded like a dirge, and the soft rumble of the timpani brought the action to a ponderous, tragic close.

If Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op. 16, a tempestuous work of wild abandon, was the composer’s reaction to the suicide of his friend Maximilian Schmidthof, it would have been toned down in the reconstructed orchestral score, the original apparently having been destroyed in a fire. Prokofiev is quoted as describing the reconstruction ten years later as being “less foursquare”.

After an unassuming opening on pizzicato strings, the piano entered with a dreamy melody. An interesting dialogue between the soloist and orchestra persisted throughout the slow section of the first movement, marked “Andantino – Allegretto”. The Hong Kong Philharmonic was somehow rather reticent, letting soloist Haochen Zhang take the credit, although its fluidity provided a good anchor to the runaway virtuoso piano. The fast section, dominated by mostly fortissimo glissandos in the long cadenza, oozed with energy and power. The orchestra and piano then dwindled into nothingness.

The Scherzo, marked “Vivace”, was a race to nowhere, with Haochen Zhang’s fingers jumping all over the keyboard like legs of a spider. After staying on the sideline in the Scherzo, the orchestra re-asserted itself with a menacing statement on tuba at the beginning of the Intermezzo (Allegro moderato). For a change, the orchestra seemed to be a little too dominant, rendering the piano contemplative by comparison.

Marked “Allegro tempestoso”, the final movement was all nervous energy, with only brief moments of withdrawal. The tension between orchestra and soloist was well balanced. The cadenza was full of suspense, with many notes hanging in mid-air. Then there was a mad dash to the end.

Prokofiev was the same age as the soloist Haochen Zhang when he wrote the concerto. Perhaps this is why there appeared to be clear confluence of pianist and composer.

Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky was indirectly also reaction to the death of a friend, Viktor Hartmann, artist and architect, written to capture his experience at a posthumous exhibition of Hartmann’s works in Saint Petersburg. Maurice Ravel’s orchestral adaptation many years later of the solo piano original has become the most often performed version. Although the disparate components in the work vary widely in character, the common theme in “Promenade” keeps re-appearing to provide unity.

The opening “Promenade” was crystal clear and poignant in its declamation on trumpet, soon to be echoed by the rest of the brass, woodwinds and strings. The jerky rhythm, rumbling timpani and booming low strings created an eerie atmosphere in “Gnome”, followed by the “Promenade” theme on woodwinds, now more introspective. A haunting folk melody on bass clarinet drew out the main theme on saxophone, full of Eastern mysticism in “The Old Castle”.

“Tuileries” painted an endearing picture of children bouncing along, as if in a game of hopscotch, with the woodwinds playing a big part. A plaintive tune opened ”Bydlo”, the name given to a Polish ox-cart, with the sense of burden growing gradually heavier in a march. The vivacious melody of “Ballet of the Chicks in the Shells” fell on woodwinds and muted trumpets, to be followed by “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle” (rich and poor Jew). “Catacombs” and “With the Dead in a Dead Language” were slow and sombre, as the pace quickened with “Baba-Yaga’s Hut on Chicken’s Legs”, a barbed and macabre dance that led to the riveting, staccato triumph in “The Great Gate of Kiev”.

With the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s colourful rendering of the Russian spirit, one didn’t need to be synaesthetic to see the music in pictures. And what beautiful pictures they were.