Two years after winning both Second Prize and the Terence Judd-Hallé Orchestra Prize at the Leeds International Piano Competition, Heejae Kim continued her association this week with the Hallé in performances of Mozart's Piano Concerto in E flat major, K.271 “Jeunehomme” under the direction of guest conductor Cristian Măcelaru. The title of the concerto alludes to the name of its dedicatee, Louise Victoire Jenamy, a female virtuoso whose skills must have have rivalled Mozart's own, given the work's unprecedented technical scope. Considered as the 21-year old composer's first great masterpiece, this boldly experimental work has cast a long shadow in the hearts and minds of Mozart interpreters and remains an abiding test not just of great pianism, but of ensemble and dialogue between soloist and orchestra.

Cristian Măcelaru © Sorin Popa
Cristian Măcelaru
© Sorin Popa

Problems of acoustic balance in the first movement somewhat undermined the relationship, with the piano lacking projection against the body of string sound – due not so much to the hall's acoustic or any lack of soloistic clout, but more, it would seem, to a disproportionate number of violins. The cadenza, all the more welcome for a chance to hear the piano unfettered, was finely shaped and paced, and free of Kim's tendency, shown elsewhere in the movement, to anticipate downbeats – her trills terminating a touch early, and not always picked up by Măcelaru at the orchestral re-entries.

In the profound and operatic middle movement,Măcelaru's finger was back on the pace of the performer, maintaining vital momentum and ensuring a more finely balanced orchestral accompaniment to the recitative of the piano. Elegance and composure were the watchwords here: without recourse to extraneous gesture, Kim shaded and infused the solo lines with just the right gravitas, never allowing the expressive elaboration to become overstated.

The risk with the final rondo's perpetual-motion 'scamper' is that velocity comes at the expense of rhythmic vigour and articulation. Perhaps here the tempo was a shade too precipitous to allow Kim to catch the top notes of the principle subject's descending scales, and had the strings been lighter in volume – or in number – the piano sound would have punctuated the texture with somewhat more punch.

An unexpected encore came in the form of Stephen Hough's fantasia arrangement of Richard Rodgers' My Favourite Things. Though its rhapsodic playfulness afforded a glimpse of Kim in more flamboyant mode, it was her musical sincerity and fine control of light and shade which distinguished this unostentatious performance.

Henri Rabaud's orchestral version of the Dolly Suite – Fauré's homage to childhood composed for piano duet – was praised by Ravel for its “most ingenious tact and flexibility”, but so redolent is the original of childhood idyll and domesticity, and of the intimacy of en famille salon performance that its essence can at times feel diluted, denatured even, by the broadness of the orchestral palette: the hypnotic sway of the Berceuse, defined by the lilt of the piano's metrical ictus becomes mellifluously vague and Le Jardin de Dolly's counterpoint, articulate and crystalline on the piano, is rendered too grand and sweeping. As orchestral renditions go however, this was an exceptionally sensitive one. Avoiding overuse of rubato and dynamic swell, Măcelaru's measured approach and patient tempi infused the music with the space and breath often denied it, allowing time to savour the more exquisite moments: the off-beat pizzicato accompaniment in Kitty-Valse, the tender oboe solos of Tendresse and the heart-rending sweetness of Le Jardin de Dolly's second theme.

Where invocation of childhood and Gallic sensibilities give way to Iberian exuberance in the final Le Pas espagnol, the music is transformed into an indigenously orchestral miniature: the use of harp and tambourine and the rousing interjections of brass and winds paint a deliciously festive scene, where the domain of childhood and the idiom of the piano duet are all but forgotten.

Unlike the more familiar suite groupings of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet ballet score, Măcelaru's own selections on this occasion formed a chronological order: a welcome chance to trace the story's progress as well as to enjoy the charms of some lesser-known movements: bustling exuberance in Morning Dance, skittish impetuousness in Young Juliet, slithering slinkiness in Dance of the Antillian Girls, all conveyed through the fluid yet unfussy style and characteristically spot-on tempi of Măcelaru which steered the orchestra in a performance of unerring precision. The two powerhouse favourites never fail to thrill: The Death of Tybalt, distinguished by breathtakingly visceral elan in the violins, and the ponderous yet terrifying menace and portent of Montagues and Capulets, managed with the steeliest of grips and delivered with devastating force.  

***11