The road back to live classical music performance in Hong Kong has been a rocky one. A case of Covid-19 in the woodwind section of the Hong Kong Phil following their season opener added to recent woes, and sadly left the entire orchestra in mandatory quarantine for a fortnight. But bright lights did emerge from the proverbial rubble this week with near (new) normal concert resumption at Hong Kong’s City Hall. Following a superb Premiere Performances recital on Wednesday entitled Beethoven & Schumann: Titan & Poet featuring violinist Dan Zhu and pianists Vanessa Wong Wai Yin and Warren Lee, Saturday’s Hong Kong Sinfonietta programme Beethoven the Immortal 1 gave concertgoers all the more reason to head home with extra spring in their step.

Perry So conducts the Hong Kong Sinfonietta
© HK Sinfonietta

Perhaps Carl Maria von Weber made a valid point by allegedly declaring Ludwig van Beethoven, “ripe for the madhouse”, on hearing the repetitive chromatic bass line found in the Vivace of the Seventh Symphony, but without doubt the borderline obsessive rhythmic drive and whirling dance energy that pervades the outer movements also explains its universal popularity. As a fitting prelude to the symphony, local conductor Perry So presented a few nifty musical excerpts that served to pinpoint a few tricks from Beethoven’s rhythmic toolbox. As effective and informative as it was, So could certainly have milked more bacchanalian dance fury from the musicians in the performance, as well as caressing more tender sounds when called for. The Hong Kong Sinfonietta, now in fine form, certainly has the goods. Tempi erred towards brisk – all well and good considering Beethoven’s own demanding metronome markings – but sometimes lead to breathlessness and missed musical opportunities. The charming lilt of the D major Trio interludes in the Presto seemed to fly by untreated, and was all but neglected in its brief minor twist prior to the abrupt final Scherzo chords. Similarly, early manifestations of the Allegretto’s gentle pulse seemed to lack a more vulnerable pre-blossoming sound dimension. Swirling energy truly came to the fore however in the final Allegro con brio where breathlessness, an inherent component of the movement, was celebrated across the board with verve and precision.

Colleen Lee and the Hong Kong Sinfonietta
© HK Sinfonietta

It was surely no coincidence that the world premiere of Hong Kong composer Daniel Lo Ting-cheung’s Autumn Rhythm II (commissioned by the orchestra) opened a concert where rhythm prevailed. Drawing inspiration from Jackson Pollock’s painting of the same name, Lo’s score is a vibrant one, providing loads of thought-provocative ideas revolving around the spontaneity of rhythm in sound, nature and colour. Under So’s baton the demanding technical intricacies were clearly articulated and negotiated with bravura by the musicians, including some clean and nifty solo work from concertmaster James Cuddeford and a highly impressive flurry from timpanist Akihiro Muramoto.

To top off the homegrown Hong Kong affair, local pianist Colleen Lee joined the orchestra before intermission for a deft and homogenous performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor. Lee’s reading, free of any superfluous showmanship and eccentricity, was all the more notable for super clean articulation and crystalline phrasing. The central Largo never got bogged down and still felt wonderfully remote, not only for its unrelated key of E major, but as if plucked from another sound sphere. The Rondo: Allegro was aptly agitated and cool-headed by turn, with the players of the Sinfonietta proving again to be deft tutti partners right through to the final C major flourishes.