Apart from those instances in which a single monumental work occupies an entire evening, it is becoming increasingly rare to find a concert devoted to one composer. So this is bold programming on the part of the Hong Kong Philharmonic: three works by Mozart, each marking a distinctive moment in his output.

Jaap van Zweden and the Hong Kong Philharmonic
© Ka Lam/HK Phil

The evening began with what is widely considered to be Mozart’s very first symphony, penned at the tender age of eight and certainly rarely performed. In the mold of the explorations of Bach’s sons and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s own father, the work is a primitive example of symphonic form, set in three movements and containing a late example of the soon-to-be-phased-out part for harpsichord.

With the keyboard and a lone bassoon as basso continuo, the orchestra presented the work with a disproportionately high number of strings, pitted against a greatly reduced wind section comprising only oboes and horns. This was problematic, as much of the colour required of these wind parts was lost in a sea of dominant strings. The second movement fared better with conductor Jaap van Zweden recognizing that the oboes and horns have much of the important melodic material. In fact, given that a four-note motif here re-surfaces in the last movement of Mozart’s final symphony, the Jupiter, it might have been an idea to program the later work to give listeners the chance to witness first-hand how a composer can take his own boyish idea and transform it into a work of maturity and complexity. Although relatively simple and unembellished, Mozart's first symphonic attempt is significant in that it provides an almost Schenkerian version of itself, stripped down to its essential melodic and structural features.

Lin Jiang, Jaap van Zweden and the Hong Kong Philharmonic
© Ka Lam/HK Phil

From these earliest beginnings, we then jump forward to an extremely productive period (1786-7) and the Horn Concerto no. 4. Oddly enough, the instrumentation of this work, along with the key, is identical to Mozart's first symphony, and still includes a somewhat defunct harpsichord part as well as ripieno horns. For much of the work, principal horn player Lin Jiang elected to stand facing the conductor with the bell of his instrument directed at the first violins. Unassuming and restrained, Jiang interpreted the work with an elegant and refined tone, opting for more strident attack on the repetitions. His breath control was remarkable, particularly when presenting the gentle and lyrical material in the second movement, which he constrasted well with the final movement’s jovial bounce. For his encore, he presented a transcription of the Allemande from Bach’s First Cello Suite. Despite its extreme difficulty, Jiang managed to convince us that the cello should not hold exclusive rights to this music.

The final work on the program is the second-to-last of Mozart’s symphonies. The conductor seemed more comfortable here, physically shaping the melodic contours. The strings responded well to his gestures and the winds gave great clarity to their flourishes. However, both the second and third movements were taken at a pace that prevented their extraordinary harmony from being fully appreciated. The lengthy Andante contains a remarkably rich string of suspensions and the Minuet and Trio equally has the strings competing for supremacy with sharp, dissonant jabs. Given the speed at which both movements were taken, the clashes and harmonic richness was somewhat lost. These tempo decisions affected the impact of the final movement as well, making less of a contrast with its Allegro Assai.

Taken together all three works offer important insights into a composer whose talent, from the very start of his career to its untimely close, left its mark on future generations.