Still glowing after its debut in Portugal in Marvão Castle at the end of July, the Hong Kong Sinfonietta joined guest conductor Ken Lam for a programme spanning three centuries on Saturday. It was my first encounter with the Music Director of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, and although it didn’t disappoint it was a bit of a mixed bag.

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

Olivier Messiaen was only 22, having studied composition with Paul Dukas and just graduated from Paris Conservatory, when his first orchestral work Les Offrandes oubliées (The Forgotten Offerings) was published. It was to set the staunchly religious tone that informed his subsequent output. In the composer’s own words, the three parts of the triptych represent “The Cross”, “The Sin” and “The Eucharist”. The mellifluous and plaintive first part started off furtively, bows gliding smoothly on the strings in a floating melodic cloud that hung over the concert hall, vividly capturing the suffering of Jesus on behalf of Man. Cataclysmic strikes on the bass drum heralded the abysmal descent into sin, made all the more distressing by cacophonic brass and percussion, in full illustration of the subtitle “Fast, ferocious, desperate, panting”. Passive acquiescence returned with melodic material echoing the first part, slightly more urgent and unremittingly yearning for peace in a timeless drift that stretched into eternity. Ken Lam and the Sinfonietta laid bare Massiaen’s piety in a treatment of sustained self-restraint that was at times awe-inspiring and at other times tranquilising.

Almost 160 years earlier, Mozart was only a few years younger than Messiaen when he composed his Bassoon Concerto in B flat major K191. It’s still hard to imagine the vast musical divide separating the two. Messiaen is intense, provocative and fear-instilling as Mozart seems relaxed, soothing and reassuring. The “ugly duckling” among orchestral instruments, the bassoon is often taken for granted, or worse still, not seriously at all. Its timbre and wide range make it susceptible to comic roles – as the broomstick in Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice and the pompous Grandfather in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Although Vivaldi gave it royal treatment in apparently some 40 concertos, it was still languishing in the wasteland of basso continuo accompaniment when Mozart restored it to prominence as the instrument went through a re-design. Surprisingly though, Mozart didn’t pull any pranks in his concerto. An elegant work in a traditional structure, it’s easy on the ear and not very demanding on the intellect. That’s not to say it’s easy to play, although soloist Matthias Rácz made it seem so. Roller-skating on the two-octave leaps and trills with gusto, he produced a refined and polished tone that blended well with the orchestra, now reduced to the size of a large chamber ensemble, never trying to seize too much of the initiative in the interaction. The measured pace and tranquillity of the slow movement was particularly calming.

Beethoven’s Symphony no. 3 in E flat major, the “Eroica”, might have been revolutionary at the beginning of the 19th century for breaking the boundaries of form and expression, but beyond highlights of drama and wrath-venting, there are moments, especially in the first two movements, when tedium sets in, no matter how fleetingly. It was the tedious aspects that kept coming to the fore in my mind as the Sinfonietta wound its way through this watershed work, with textural clarity but rather unimaginative tempi. The opening chords in the first movement lacked punch, and although Ken Lam kept things moving steadily, tension and contrast were generally weak. The second movement, the so called funeral march, was sombre and hefty enough, but not quite an emotionally-charged lament of a hero’s passing. The last two movements slid by without making much of an impression. There was fine balance among the instruments, and Ken Lam tried hard to play an even hand, but in doing so he sapped the work of energy and vigour. The Sinfonietta brought out four horns, when the score requires only three, yet their contribution was far less noticeable than expected in the second and third movements.

If one were to heed HL Mencken’s standard for a great performance of the work – “it needs to capture the essence of that revolutionary moment and the depths and peaks of its inherent nature” – Ken Lam’s interpretation came up a little short. No doubt, he stuck to the script, but perhaps a little too much?