“Music from three centuries comes together in tonight’s concert,” declare the programme notes to the Hong Kong Sinfonietta performance at the Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall. Indeed it surveyed the best and most famous in the classical canon. What caught my attention, however, was the opening work: Frates by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Many versions of the work exist – for violin and piano; 12 solo cellos; string quartet; and string orchestra and percussion, the one dating to 1984 featured last night.

Pianist Yeo Eum Son with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta © Hong Kong Sinfonietta
Pianist Yeo Eum Son with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta
© Hong Kong Sinfonietta

A self-proclaimed minimalist, Pärt describes the style of Frates as “tintinnabuli”, characterised by voices involving notes in a single triad on the one hand and the diatonic scale on the other hand. While this method of composition can be mathematically precise and mechanical, the musical outcome is quite pleasing. Frates begins with a soft rumble on percussion (claves and bass drum), joined shortly by quiet strings. As the repetition of phrases builds up, so does the volume, until it reaches fortissimo and gradually subsides to end. Thus the shape of the work appears symmetrical. The tone of the Hong Kong Sinfonietta under Jason Lai was soft but radiant, giving the work a soothing sheen of warmth.

The second work on the evening’s programme, Piano Concerto No. 21 in C, K467 by Mozart, got off to a rather fractured start. Korean pianist Yeol Eum Son, fresh from her success as 2nd prize winner in the International Tchaikovsky Competition last June, was deliberate and strenuous, at times appearing to be hitting hard to get the notes out. The winds, especially the flute and the bassoon, were overly assertive, cowing the rather tentative strings. The cadenza was too torrential to be spontaneous.

The Andante second movement, the famous theme to the movie “Elvira Madigan”, was much better handled, with the exception of an intrusive horn halfway. The dreamy lyricism came through with subtlety and empathy, most of the contribution coming from the soloist.

In the final movement, soloist and orchestra came together in a buoyant mood to serve up a delightful and splendid finish. By now, Yeol Eum Son had loosened up enough to be fluid in her delivery, and the strings had tamed the recalcitrant woodwinds. The real surprise in store was the encore: the Allegretto (Alla Turca) from Mozart’s sonata K331. As soon as I started thinking that the opening was far too slow, Son picked up speed, inserting a jazzy variation. After alternating between the original score and further variations, the tempo became faster than I could imagine and came to a crashing finish, much to the delight of the audience.

Admittedly, the first movement of the work after the intermission, Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E minor, opens modestly with a deceptively simple theme. Even then, the orchestra sounded anaemic and diffident, not coming into its own until the second theme emerged on horns and cellos. It was smooth sailing from this point on, with finely chiselled colours on display. The horn ushering in the second movement, Andante moderato, was a little wobbly. The winds quickly chimed in to steady the ship, carrying the rhythm forward, as clarinets and bassoons engaged in a lyrical dialogue over pizzicato strings. The cantabile second subject was lovely, although at points the strings became rather forceful, spoiling matters a little.

There was a refreshing change in the spirited third movement – Allegro giocoso – in which Jason Lai’s strong grasp of the rhythmic pulse brought out a great sense of humour and fun. The lovely tinkle of the triangle and shriek of the piccolo were spot on, supported by well-shaped horn passages. Opening trombones in the Finale made clear that a sombre mood had set in, putting paid to the fleeting jollity of the last movement. As the punchy bass line gave way to the timid woodwinds, the strings started to shine with the luxuriance I had been looking for. As the orchestra wove in and out of the kaleidoscope of variations in this passacaglia, a stronger sense of gloom emerged, although never quite reaching tragedy. The conclusion was resolute and affirmative, but not crushing, bringing to life Eduard Hanslick’s famous assessment: “It is like a dark well; the longer we look into it, the more brightly the stars shine back.”

By choosing a programme of well-known masterpieces, the Hong Kong Sinfonietta set out to challenge stringent standards set by the world’s finest players. Apart from occasional lapses, it acquitted itself admirably. The enthusiastic reception of the audience bore this out.