It is customary now for conductors at Hong Kong Sinfonietta concerts to make introductory remarks about the programme for the evening. Principal Guest Conductor Christoph Poppen’s description of the orchestra being “in fine form” was prescient and fully vindicated on Saturday. In a programme of works from the Germanic tradition spanning a century from the 1790s to the 1880s, the orchestra charmed, cajoled and astounded.

Christoph Poppen © Sasha Gusov
Christoph Poppen
© Sasha Gusov
Haydn’s “Military” Symphony no. 100 in G major, found instant success with London audiences during the composer’s second tour there in the 1790s. The novelty of using “Turkish” instruments – triangle, cymbals and drums – had something to do with it; but it was Sir Thomas Beecham who provided the most lucid explanation: “The English do not like music, only the noise it makes.” The Sinfonietta displayed rhythmic verve and jollity in the Allegro part of the first movement, but was a tad fast in the preceding Adagio introduction, diminishing the contrast between the two sections. As expected, the capricious flute injected good cheer and gaiety to the transition, although the rest of the movement didn’t surprise with much imagination or spontaneity even with good textural clarity.

The opening to the Allegretto second movement was subdued and placid. It was the turn of other wind instruments to shine – the clarinet in particular. Despite the onset of disruptive percussion, there was no overstated suggestion of horror in military conflict, just a steady pace interrupted by increasingly emphatic strokes and a half-hearted trumpet call to arms. The Minuet and Trio weren’t quite sure where they fitted. It wasn’t the stuff of a barn dance, but the elegance and majesty were not enough to qualify it for court entertainment either. Rhythmic propulsion galore moved the finale to its conclusion in rapid-fire statements of not bombastic but nevertheless pompous confidence. It was a charming account of a delightful work.

The horn is not an instrument for which there is a breadth and depth of repertoire in which many soloists can flourish. The big shoes left behind by such giants as Dennis Brain and Barry Tuckwell are not easy to fill. One might say, therefore, that Radovan Vlatković is “behind the eight ball” in a handicapped race. In the Strauss Horn Concerto no. 1 in E flat major he mastered with aplomb the technical challenges of multiple octave leaps and twists and turns the composer laid out. His tone was warm and radiant, but not consistently clear, and the occasional sparkle that would have made it truly outstanding was not quite there. It’s hard to fault the youthful vigour and lyricism in his interpretation, but a higher dose of playful heroism and bravado would have made it first class. The orchestra was well-paced, bold and earnest. Its skill in controlling sustained notes in the quiet passages in the Andante movement was impressive. I was easily cajoled into approval.

Brahms’ monumental First Symphony, whose gestation lasted some two decades, can be unfairly demanding for an orchestra such as the Hong Kong Sinfonietta. The result, though, was a surprising endorsement of the orchestra’s professionalism and sheer determination to succeed. The opening string-suppressing strikes on timpani were sombre but not ominous, depicting more the persistent setbacks one encounters in life rather than the definitive knocks of fate in Beethoven’s Fifth. The ensuing dialogue between strings and woodwinds was deftly played with appropriate alternation between tension and congruence, much as the tone of the strings sometimes bordered on being strident.

The gentle lyricism of the second movement was welcome relief to the enervating tension of the first, with the oboe and then the clarinet providing a welcome break from doom and gloom. Thrusts of energy were not lacking, however, and concertmaster James Cuddeford rounded off the movement with dollops of dainty tender loving care in his violin solo.

The Un poco allegretto e grazioso third movement is an oddity. Against the intensity of the other movements, it might be described as an interlude, and the Sinfonietta wisely played it as such. There was palpable relaxation in the air, as the woodwinds wound their way around the meandering thematic development. Pizzicato string surges launching the finale soon gave way to breathtakingly expansive belching on horn, for which the cooing on flute was no match. Like a rainbow emerging in clearing clouds after a storm, the superbly lyrical assertion on strings broke out of the clutter. It was as if we had been waiting half an hour just to hear this. Soon, lyricism morphed into the mantle of a triumphant statement of victory to close, dispelling misgivings about the human spirit that might have built up in the first three movements, and astounding even the most stubborn doubters of the Sinfonietta’s capabilities.