The Hong Kong Philharmonic's concert this weekend featured two long works by composers who were contemporaries and who struck up a friendship late in their career, mutually respectful and appreciative of each other’s talent. However, I’m convinced that had they been there last night, Tchaikovsky would have been much less complimentary about Dvořák’s Cello Concerto than Dvořák about his Manfred Symphony.

Vassily Sinaisky © Jesper Lindgren
Vassily Sinaisky
© Jesper Lindgren
Possibly taking a leaf from the book of his friend and mentor Brahms’ First Piano Concerto more than three decades earlier, Dvořák gave his Cello Concerto a long orchestral introduction containing much of the material for the rest of the first movement. Just as I thought that hardly anything could go wrong with such lyrical and endearing material, the orchestra proved me wrong. I thought nothing of the subdued crescendo on strings in the opening bars, until the horn passage – one that Donald Tovey is said to have described as “one of the most beautiful ever written” for the instrument – struck me as equally tepid. My heart sank at that point, fearing the worst for the rest of the work. Alban Gerhardt’s entry was laid back and strident, for a brief moment almost as if his bow was scraping the strings. As he picked up the horn theme, his tone softened and delivered the required lyricism, but in the rest of the movement the clarity of the woodwinds left his muddy fingering for dead. The orchestra demonstrated equal competence in ensemble playing as well as chamber-like intimacy, yet not enough to inject drama, emotional intensity or majesty.

The second movement showed improvement, with soloist showing more sensitivity in the long-drawn-out sobbing against gentle waves of woodwind, strings and horns. His skilful phrasing made the agony all the more unbearable. There was energy aplenty in the first part of the finale, with soloist and orchestra hopping in dance-like lockstep jauntily, but a dash of wistful glory would have drawn it to a much more convincing close. It was, after all, Dvořák’s farewell to the love of his youth, who died while he was finishing the concerto.

Tchaikovsky was a late and reluctant convert to programmatic music. Although he was not Balakirev’s first choice to write a symphonic work based on Byron’s poem Manfred, the project progressively captivated him and he threw his heart and soul into it, hopeful that it would be the best of his symphonic compositions. The result is monumental testimony to his prowess as a symphonic composer, although the work remains underrated and rarely performed.  Not often have I come across more potent use of the low register in the orchestra to communicate such an ardent sense of despondent anguish than the opening bars of the first movement.

Conductor Vassily Sinaisky perfectly captured Manfred’s delirious torment with precise direction of cellos and double basses in a vortex of descending notes interrupting bass clarinet and bassoons. The orchestra sounded like a dragon woken from its slumber, its palpable intensity piercing the still air in the auditorium like a sharp knife. At the same time, there were moments of supreme tenderness, replete with curvaceous and meandering strings, woodwinds and harps.

The main feature of the second movement, ushered in hesitantly by a flurry of activity on woodwinds, is undoubtedly the airy theme depicting fairies scaling the contours of the Alps through colours of the rainbow. It’s hard to forget Tchaikovsky’s talent for writing ballet music here. Rolling timpani interrupted the fun with avalanche-like suddenness as things quietened to a whisper. A pining oboe set the tone for the third movement, as the strings went on to paint a picture of idyllic quietude. Splashes of rude brass were unable to shatter the bucolic ambience. Chirping clarinets brought the action to a close with the help of softly hushed flutes.

Abrasive brass and resolute strings played a swirling and macabre dance to open the last movement in which Manfred is supposed to find himself at an underground orgy. Pulsating strings extruded the anguished Manfred theme, now made more compelling by brass, which morphed into a lyrical interlude, both from the first movement. As extended moments of sanctified glory on organ died down, Manfred’s spirit was laid to rest quietly on a soft bed of flutes and clarinets. Thus, Tchaikovsky rescued thr evening.