Overshadowed by far better-known and more frequently performed companions in his oeuvre, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in G and the Manfred Symphony have received their fair share of criticism. Their length and stylistic oddities require strong force of will to pull off in performance – some performers (such as pianist Alexander Siloti) have gone so far as to make their own amendments. With the Hong Kong Philharmonic on Saturday, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky and his wife, the pianist Viktoria Postnikova, stayed faithful to the script.

Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, © Wladimir Polak
Gennadi Rozhdestvensky,
© Wladimir Polak

It seems that Tchaikovsky had difficulty deciding about the relationship between the solo piano and the orchestra in the concerto. He gives the piano ample space to show off virtuosity in cadenzas – or at least cadenza-like passages – but he sometimes also relegates it to an afterthought. There is no question that Postnikova is a highly skilled pianist, yet in navigating Tchaikovsky’s intricate filigree she fell short in clarity. Under Rozhdestvensky on Saturday, the orchestra was overpowering despite the absence of blasting trombones and tubas, making it even more difficult for Postnikova to shine. I was struck by how crisp he made the strings sound in the first movement, almost to the point of being cold, but I enjoyed the free rein he gave the woodwinds, especially the flute, to parade their full colours in their interaction with the soloist.

The much-maligned piano trio section in the slow movement sounded more like a double concerto. The mournful dialogue between the concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich and principal cellist Richard Bamping was captivating in its sensitivity, yet it helped further deepen Postnikova’s sense of timidity. In the boisterous final movement, she made a valiant attempt to break out of the enveloping orchestral blanket with limited success. Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 2 is perhaps not his most coherent work, and Rozhdestvensky’s performance didn’t make it more so.

Although the composition of the Manfred Symphony was difficult and consumed all of his energy for quite a few months, Tchaikovsky seemed to derive some satisfaction from it, once predicting that it could be the best of his symphonic compositions. The work certainly shows his strong empathy with the romantic hero in Byron’s dramatic poem. A combination of brooding bass clarinet and chilling strings made a clear opening statement about Manfred’s anguish and guilt, pulling him into the dark recesses of the occult. The buildup to a loud jangle underlined the brute force of his feelings, and the subsequent subsidence portrayed a brief respite, a moment of reflection in his search for forgiveness and oblivion. In contrast to the first movement of the piano concerto, the strings now appeared warmer and more sympathetic.

The amorphous shape of the scherzo-like second movement, together with a generous helping of vivacious woodwinds, gave a graphic depiction of the ethereal Fairy of the Alps appearing “before Manfred through the rainbow of spray from a waterfall”. The swirling dance that broke out in the middle of the movement left me in a swoon. The delicate opening with oboe and horns in the third movement soon ballooned into an expansive pastoral landscape, dotted with lingering pangs of torment. It was quite amusing that the ending Rozhdestvensky crafted sounded like a gramophone record losing speed.

To avoid collapsing under the onerous and repetitive structure of the final movement, Rozhdestvensky took the orchestra at a rapid but not hurried pace, with the brass having a field-day imitating the orgy in the “subterranean palace of Arimanes”. The intrusive fugue halfway through the movement morphed into what sounded like a Cossack dance; harps and anguished strings slowed the action, as the bass clarinet returned briefly, soon to be drowned out by the timpani. A ritual climax on organ paved the way for the dwindling orchestral close on pizzicato strings – Manfred’s exit was not heroic but rather a muffled affair, probably in shame.

The experience with Rozhdestvensky and the Hong Kong Philharmonic in the all-Tchaikovsky programme was like walking on a thick carpet – very comfortable but sometimes a little wobbly.