The weekend’s concerts with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra were to have been conducted by Jaap van Zweden, but he had to withdraw at the last minute on doctor’s orders. His emergency stand-in, Vassily Sinaisky, replaced Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, which I was looking forward to hearing, with Tchaikovsky’s Orchestral Suite no. 4, “Mozartiana”.  The change turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

Vassily Sinaisky © Ulla Alderin
Vassily Sinaisky
© Ulla Alderin

Steeped in the saccharine self-indulgence of the Romantic period, Tchaikovsky is the last composer you would expect to revere Mozart. But he did so with a passion, once describing him as “the musical holy of holies” to his patron Nadezhda von Meck after viewing the original score of his favourite opera, Don Giovanni, which apparently had inspired Tchaikovsky as a child to pursue his interest in music. In the centenary of the opera’s première in 1887, he decided to pay tribute to his idol in an adaptation of his lesser known works, aiming to “recreate the past in a contemporary world”.

The first two movements of Mozartiana, based on the Gigue for Piano K574 and the Minuet for Piano K355, are short and dainty pieces whose orchestration more or less mimics Mozart’s style, with embellishments made possible by the enlarged Romantic orchestra.  They are fine appetisers to the more substantial third and fourth movements, “Pregheira” and “Theme and Variations”. Drawn from Liszt’s piano transcription combining Gregorio Allegri’s Misere and Mozart’s motet Ave verum corpus, “Pregheira” is a little like reconstituted milk, tasting more or less but not quite like the original. What gives it away is the prominence of the harp.

The last movement derives from 10 Variations for Piano “Unser dummer Poebel meint” K455, which Mozart had in turn taken from an opera by Gluck. It begins innocently enough, sticking to a style typical of the Classical period. By the penultimate variation, Tchaikovsky nails his colours to the mast with a lyrical violin solo which leads to the final variation – a waltz that sounds as if it had just jumped out of one of his ballets.

Conducting without a baton and an unusual economy of gestures, Vassily Sinaisky handled the work with kid gloves, carefully preserving a semblance of Classical probity with just a dash of Romantic opulence. The elegance of Tchaikovsky’s orchestration came through brilliantly, the “Menuet” being almost like a slow movement from one of Mozart’s symphonies, with a little sweetener added. Concertmaster Jing Wang shone in the violin solo in the final movement, as did the chirpy flute and impish clarinet.

In recent years it seems almost fashionable for conductors to adopt faster tempi in Mahler’s Symphony no. 5 in C sharp minor. In the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s performance on Saturday, the “Funeral March” first movement sounded almost bizarrely like a celebration of death. The crashing percussion after the opening trumpet bordered on being flippant, especially in the context of the plodding march that followed, which was certainly not weighty enough. The phrasing of the ensuing lament lacked affection, but to his credit he did observe Mahler’s marking “Wild” as the movement progressed. Overall, however, it was not nearly dark enough.

The second movement opened with appropriate nervous anxiety, which soon degenerated into a tussle with a more even-tempered theme. There was plenty of dynamism, and the sense of inner struggle and tension was palpable. The heaving cellos were outstanding underlining loneliness and frustration.

In the third Scherzo movement, the centre of gravity in the symphony, the horn more than lived up to expectation, handling the material with finesse and flair aplenty. The orchestra, on the other hand, could have been more elegant and graceful in light dance-like passages, and the pizzicato strings were feeble. At times a sense of chaos descended – the result, I suspect, of the conductor’s laconic style. Instead of wallowing in deeply intimate yearning, Maestro Sinaisky hopscotched on the languorous score in the legendary Adagietto fourth movement. His reading came across as almost being too literal and superficial, short-changing the heart and soul that Mahler poured into this part of the symphony.

All came together nicely in the final triumphant movement, full of verve and life-affirming energy. The good humour and sense of hope were evident, with bells, triangle and glockenspiel all playing their part, although a stronger rippling effect in the strings would have been nice. Maestro Sinaisky’s light touch came in handy here, pushing the movement to a conclusion of near slapstick jocularity.

The programme on Saturday featured two ends of the Romantic spectrum – Tchaikovsky’s focused lightness and Mahler’s expansive intensity. It’s clear which end of it Vassily Sinaisky was more at home in.