Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge is not a work often heard in concert halls but deserves to be performed more often, Hong Kong Sinfonietta conductor Yip Wing-sie said at the start of the concert last night at the City Hall. The orchestra’s rendering of this moving musical tribute vindicated her statement.

Yip Wing-sie conducting the Hong Kong Sinfonietta © HK Sinfonietta Ltd
Yip Wing-sie conducting the Hong Kong Sinfonietta
© HK Sinfonietta Ltd

Britten had been working on a set of variations on a theme taken from one of Bridge’s Three Idylls for String Quartet, Op. 6 since 1932, but it wasn’t until he received a commission in 1937 for a work to be performed at the Salzburg Festival that he finished the sketch within a record ten days. Each of the variations is said to illustrate an aspect of Bridge’s character, as revealed by the descriptions Britten included in the score he presented to his mentor. They also show off Britten’s skills in adapting and parodying clichés from other periods and composers.

The taut pizzicato opening in the “Introduction and Theme”, coupled with angst-ridden sweeping statements, sets the tone for the rest of the work. The somber “Adagio” morphs into a “March” with the cellos sounding as if they were skating on the icy sounds of the violins. “Aria Italianna” is a thinly disguised parody of Rossini – could it have been bits of the William Tell overture played upside down? “Bourée classique” is enough of a warped neo-Baroque distortion to make Bach roll in his grave. After buzzing around in “Moto perpetuo” – Britten’s homegrown bumble-bee flight – the orchestra launches into a chillingly mournful “Funeral March”. The insipid “Chant”, delivered mostly by violas, slides into the “Fugue” and lyrical “Finale” that fizzles out after an impassioned outpouring.

With a sympathetic and endearing tone, the Sinfonietta nimbly navigated the contours of Britten’s tricky orchestration. The portrait of Frank Bridge was at once dignified, irreverent and full of life.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in C, Op. 15 has plenty of new ideas and inventiveness, but hardly shows that the composer has shaken off the more light-hearted concerto mode of Mozart and Haydn. After a long orchestral introduction that broaches one and a half themes, the piano takes off in a new direction before coming back to pick up and develop the orchestral threads. The Allegro con brio first movement has the soloist repeatedly rippling up and down the keyboard and is peppered with delightful side-trips with the woodwinds. The Largo second movement, unlike its equivalent in the later concertos, is pensive and dreamy, but not impassioned and despondent. The Rondo finale is a bouncy bundle of wit and good humour, with plenty of bantering between the soloist and the woodwinds.

Soloist John Lill’s youthful vigour probably rivals that of someone half his age. Apart from the occasional uneven fingering, his eloquence did full justice to the work. His versatility was evident not only in masterful control in the slow movement, but also his ebullience in the finale.

After the intermission, John Lill returned with Concertmaster James Cuddeford and Artist Associate/cello Wendy Law in Beethoven’s Concerto in C for violin, cello and piano, “Triple”. Having heard a number of recordings of this work, I didn’t have high expectations. Essentially this is a concerto for piano trio and orchestra. The task at hand is formidable – not only is it difficult to balance the soloists with one another, but it is equally difficult for the trio collectively to work well with the orchestra. Conductor Yip Wing-sie was obviously sensitive to this challenge, and kept looking back at the soloists behind her.

As it turned out, the performance was a delightful surprise of near-perfect harmony. The piano part is lightweight to have been written by such a powerful pianist–composer as Beethoven. Apparently, he had in mind for this part his student the Archduke Rudolph, who was not a professional virtuoso. What I didn’t expect was how effective it could be as a bridge between the two other soloists and the orchestra because of the instrument’s unique timbre. Wendy Law on cello worked in such meticulous lock-step with violinist James Cuddeford as a duo that John Lill practically became an extension of the orchestra, emerging only occasionally like a swimmer catching breath between strokes.

Wendy Law fully deserved all the importance Beethoven gave to the cello part in the concerto, playing with a wistfully expressive and wholesome tone, full of verve and polished fluency. She is also capable of creating tension and suspense with cliff-hanging phrasing.

This is one of the best performances I’ve heard by the Sinfonietta in recent times. I put it down to the leadership of conductor Yip Wing-sie.