Marketed somewhat misleadingly as “Sitkovetsky Plays Tchaikovsky”, this Hong Kong Sinfonietta concert was clearly more memorable for the impactful symphony than anything else. Structurally intricate and riddled with personal undercurrents, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 5 in E minor was handled with a deft touch by conductor Daniel Raiskin and, despite some questionable tempo choices, the Sinfonietta generally responded well and aptly communicated a plethora of emotions.

Daniel Raiskin, Dmitry Sitkovetsky and the Hong Kong Sinfonietta
© HK Sinfonietta

The first movement seemed to be under-rehearsed to fully prepare us for the journey ahead, with suspicious intonation from the clarinet throat notes at the start, a second subject that was devoid of emotional weight, and even some balance issues with the brass. However, the transition from development to recapitulation was effective in ushering in a new reading of the material the second time around. 

Hermann Paw Man-hing presented the second movement’s formidable horn solo with warmth of tone and delicately-shaped contours. A few glitches did not detract from the atmosphere created and the cellos excelled passionately in their subsequent moment. The inclusion of a rather indulgent rallentando prior to the return of the main theme could be viewed as excessive, but perhaps warranted given its historical familiarity. Raiskin was even quick to shut down the smattering of applause by movement’s end with a didactic “not now” shake of his baton, which resulted in a sprinkling of chuckles. 

The third movement Valse illustrated that the relationship between guest conductor and orchestra was gradually beginning to re-ignite. This was heightened in the finale where abrupt shifts were fully seized, and transitions were carefully measured. Peaking too early in the latter portion of this movement, given the abundance of coda-like passages, can have disastrous results. Despite starting too fast at one point, the energy was maintained, right through to a thrilling conclusion.   

Daniel Raiskin conducts the Hong Kong Sinfonietta
© HK Sinfonietta

The evening began with Raiskin unexpectedly talking about his 15-year connection with the Sinfonietta. With a possible jibe at the dispensation afforded to others, he further illustrated his commitment to the event by mentioning that he had undergone two weeks of quarantine. Then came the Asian premiere of Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks' atmospheric and extremely accessible Musica serena. Sonorous at times and thinly veiled at others, the work harks back to the texture of Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio with its lengthy melodic strands and its 19th-century harmonic sensibilities. The Sinfonietta understood its clear and emotional direction well, presenting a balanced and passionate reading of the material. Premature applause prevented the final chord from fully dying to silence. 

Turning our attention to the headlined artist, the 66-year Dmitry Sitkovetsky tackled Tchaikovsky's daunting Violin Concerto with uncompromising hubris, producing an infectious and enveloping tone to its fervent intensity. His interpretation did not always seem spontaneous and he delivered some technical passages in mechanical fashion. Nevertheless, there were certainly glimpses of impeccable technical skill and exquisite lines of the greatest delicacy. 

There were also obvious problems in leading the orchestra: the self-confident Sitkovetsky was determined to take control on tempo, over and above Raiskin. This was brought to a head when conductor and orchestra were caught somewhat off-guard at the blistering pace in which the soloist initiated the third movement.

The audience was probably more appreciative of this great artist’s legacy than with his performance here tonight. As an encore, Sitkovetsky treated us to an understated rendition of the Sarabande from Bach’s D minor Violin Partita. On the eve of the Hungry Ghost Festival, it was comforting to know that our ancestors were treated to fare from afar with enough ingredients for a scrumptious feast.