Over the years, the Hong Kong Sinfonietta has made laudable efforts in bringing classical music to the masses and recruiting new audiences. Of necessity, it sticks to a well-trodden repertoire of evergreens which challenges musicians to bring a fresh perspective.

Hong Kong Sinfonietta © HK Sinfonietta Ltd
Hong Kong Sinfonietta
© HK Sinfonietta Ltd

The first half of programme on Wednesday evening was devoted to Mozart. The Magic Flute is one of the composer’s last works, and a rather quaint story weaving together elements of comedy, caricature and Eastern mysticism. His collaboration with music-hall entertainer Emanuel Schikaneder was an effort by both to get out of a financial shambles, but the work is nevertheless full of charming fun. The overture was written a day or two before the opera’s première. A slow and quiet section follows the three solemn opening chords, apparently with numerical relevance to Freemasonry, to which both composer and librettist had been sworn recently. A light, skipping figure on strings gradually develops through various fugal guises into a dignified statement for full orchestra.

The Hong Kong Sinfonietta under conductor Li Xin-cao faltered in the opening chords and had a raw, edgy tone that didn’t quite bring out the magical qualities of the overture. Bright moments of sparring between the woodwinds and the strings could not compensate for the orchestra not pulling together well to create a solid rendering. At one point, the horns crumbled into the musical equivalent of molten lava.

Soloist Lio Kwok-wai joined the orchestra in the Piano Concerto no. 22 in E flat. The last of three concertos Mozart completed in quick succession in 1785, the work debuted between two acts of Dittersdorf’s oratorio Esther. Compared with the other two in the trilogy, the E flat concerto appears a little more subdued and deliberate. A series of stately chords sandwiching a playful tune on bassoon open the first movement and lead into a long introduction before the soloist gently eases into the picture. For the rest of the movement the piano glides in and out in mellifluous ripples.

The second movement is a pensive and yearning dialogue between soloist and orchestra, with some beautiful scoring for the woodwind section. During one of the early performances by Mozart himself, this movement was applauded so much he had to repeat it. The finale is one light and leisurely gallop to the end, replete with a flurry of rolling solo passages.

The orchestra had picked itself up and come together to deliver a much more finely chiselled sound for the Mozart concerto. The soloist was effective but perfunctory, dexterous but not engaged with a lot of relish. His treatment of the second movement, in particular, hardly got to the core of the contemplative lyricism.

Fast forward 20 years after the intermission and we come to Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5 in C minor. The eight-note sequence that emphatically opens the symphony must be the best known snippet in the repertoire. Although the myth about Beethoven describing it as “fate knocking at the door” has been all but dispelled, it remains true that the work must hold a deep meaning for him, having poured his heart and soul into its creation over several years. It has also come a long way in popularity since its under-rehearsed debut in freezing conditions alongside a number of his other works.

The way that the measured and placid lyricism on strings and woodwinds in the Andante con moto second movement breaks out into an almost glorious march on brass is a surprise even to a listener well versed in the work. A similar pattern occurs in the Scherzo, except that the contrast is even more pronounced. How the movement dies down to a whisper and launches into the thunderous finale without a break is equally exciting. The soaring defiance metered out in a burly rhythm is perhaps not quite “relentlessly aggressive”, as Christoph Eschenbach describes it, but it does have the hallmark of Beethoven’s declaration of victory.

It is inevitable in such a familiar work that we come with preconceived ideas. Among mine is preference for a calculated pace in the first movement, and exploration of the nuances through dynamic contrast. On both counts, the Sinfonietta came in below expectation. There was a mild feeling of the first movement being rushed, especially the fermatas in the opening sequence. I thought the opening of the second movement was more than the “piano” marking the score calls for. In any case, I would have preferred sharper dynamic contrast throughout the work. The orchestra was at its best in the splendid finale, with the brass adding superb colour to the declaration. In defence of the Sinfonietta, acoustics in the City Hall are not sympathetic, but Li Xin-cao’s robotic and stiff conducting style probably didn’t do the orchestra much favour either.

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