Thursday December 22nd, 1808 was a bitterly cold day in Vienna. Beethoven took the stage in what was to be his last public performance as soloist with orchestra. The crammed programme lasted some four hours. Due to lack of rehearsal time, the evening didn’t go smoothly, with the final Choral Fantasy having to be stopped and started again. The fourth piano concerto was not very well received, and was to be neglected for almost three decades before Mendelssohn revived interest in it.

Yip Wing-sie © HK Sinfonietta Ltd
Yip Wing-sie
© HK Sinfonietta Ltd

Fast forward to more than two centuries later, five and a half thousand miles away, the air in the Hong Kong City Hall lobby on Saturday was muggy. In the concert hall, conductor Yip Wing-sie held court with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta and the SingFest 2013 Festival Chorus in works by Brahms and Beethoven. Perhaps by design, the programme included the same piano concerto and was to close with the Choral Fantasy, just like the evening in the Theater-an-der-Wien in 1808.

One would not normally associate expediency with Brahms, yet I can’t help feeling that he composed the Tragic Overture to fulfil a need other than art itself. Its provenance is not clear, although it seems certain that it was a companion piece to balance the cheerful Academic Festival Overture. Brahms himself claimed he didn’t have a specific tragedy in mind; thus the work does not plumb the depths of emotion – at least that’s the impression the Hong Kong Sinfonietta left with me. Not that Brahms set out to expound the intricate meaning of classical Greek tragedy, but the well-honed material probably deserved more serious consideration than the bland treatment I heard.

Among Beethoven’s piano concertos, the No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 is an oddball. In addition to having an inventive structure, it requires genuine dialogue between soloist and orchestra that needs to be patiently nurtured and honed. In the image of Orpheus taming the wild beasts – a concept of the concerto popularised by Liszt – the soloist prevails over the orchestra through inner strength and unruffled lyricism, rather than technical brilliance or force of will.

Ben Kim’s opening chords were gentle enough, but against the warmth and lyricism of the lengthy orchestral response, they got off to an unequal footing, sounding dry and cold. He glided fluidly to dominance with increasingly assertive statements, marred by a tinge of muddiness in his fingering. Beethoven provided plenty of scope for the soloist with a penchant for forceful hammering, and Ben Kim took the bait. Refusing to cower in the face of burly orchestral strings in the slow movement, he gradually gained the upper hand to settle into copious space for dreamy contemplation, like a soldier collapsing into bed after a hard day’s fighting. Orchestra and soloist came together in a stronger bond than ever in the finale, weaving together their respective parts with panache and ebullience. The gentle tug-of-war ended with the triumph of both.

After the intermission, the Singfest 2013 Festival Chorus joined the orchestra and added a breath of fresh air. The mournful serenity of the orchestral opening in Brahms’ Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny) was a sublime prelude to the entry of the chorus. The inspiration for the work, Hölderlin’s verses entitled “Hyperions Schicksalslied” (Hyperion’s Song of Destiny), contrasts the ethereally blissful existence of blessed spirits and the unending struggles of human beings on earth. The lush and delicate harmony of the chorus set the scene for the elated state of angels, as anguished phrasing brought out the plight of the human condition. Not content to leave the suffering of ephemeral human beings unresolved, Brahms brings back the opening theme with a mildly positive twist (a suggestion of conductor Hermann Levi). The orchestra soft-pedalled human despondency to suggestions of hope and optimism.

In closing, Ben Kim launched into the opening solo of Beethoven’s Fantasy for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra, Op. 80 with dramatic verve and youthful scamper. As the lower strings crept into the picture, horns and woodwind boldly ushered in the main piano theme of the finale that looks forward to the composer’s ninth symphony. Kim and principal flute Kate Lawson tackled a dance-like duet with relish, soon to be joined by the larger woodwind section. As pianist and orchestra built tension into a triumphant crescendo, soloists from the chorus began the glorious vocal finale, bringing the second half of the concert to a magnificent close.

The highlights of the evening on Saturday were undoubtedly the two less frequently heard choral works by Brahms and Beethoven. The superb delivery of the SingFest 2013 Festival Chorus would have easily restored Beethoven’s reputation in his première of the Choral Fantasy two centuries ago.

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