The programme notes for last night’s performance by the Hong Kong Philharmonic, sub-titled “Three Glorious Romantics”, make it clear: “The illustrious history of Saxony in eastern Germany influenced all the works in tonight’s concert” – the “Dresden Amen” is woven into Wagner’s Parsifal and Mendelssohn’s Fifth Symphony; Clara Wieck and Robert Schumann first met in Leipzig, where Mendelssohn conceived his symphony. The less obvious connection is that Schumann’s “Concert Fantasy” for piano and orchestra, to which he later added two movements to make up the piano concerto, premièred with Mendelssohn conducting and Clara as soloist.

David Fray © Paolo Roversi
David Fray
© Paolo Roversi

Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony has been the subject of some scholarly speculation. Did he compose it for the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession? If so, why was it not included in the celebration programme, instead languishing in limbo for two years in search of a performance? Why did Mendelssohn dismiss it later as “juvenile”, declaring that it was one of the works he would gladly have seen burnt? Whatever the answers to these questions, the religious undertones of the work are unmistakable. Compared with his superb dramatic and narrative symphonic soundtracks such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Fingal’s Cave, the symphony is solemn and serious.

Under guest conductor Constantin Trinks, the Hong Kong Philharmonic delivered a precise, rigorous and level-headed account of Mendelssohn’s Fifth, which made up the second half of the evening. The slow, measured pace of the opening was aspirational and visionary, providing a calm introduction to the occasional thumping turbulence in the rest of the first movement, as if in earnest assertion of the spiritual voice of Lutheranism. The woodwinds came to the fore in the second movement, dancing with the strings in light-hearted spontaneity much akin to a scene in a market square after church on a Sunday. Lilting strings launched the third movement, perfectly capturing the sense of faltering doubt that afflicts all believers sometimes. Without a pause, the flute, initially on its own but soon joined by other woodwinds, boldly introduced Martin Luther’s hymn “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott” (A Mighty Fortress is our God). After intermittent rounds of introspection and transformation, the movement ended in magnificent celebration of what appeared to be lofty ideals in dignified solemnity.

In the first half of the evening, the orchestra was joined by soloist David Fray, perched on stacked chairs rather than the usual piano stool, in Schumann’s concerto. Both conductor and soloist clearly understood that true mark of success lay in rapport rather than virtuosity, and made frequent eye contact to ensure movement in tandem. The oboe melody after the piano's initial chords, one of the most heart-rending and lugubrious in the repertoire, provided much of the material for the rest of the movement. The piano, woodwinds and strings passed phrases to one another as if in a ball game, sometimes soaring together, and sometimes supporting each other in flights of lyrical fancy, but never seeking dominance. We secretly clamoured for more when the continuous banter ended. Superb lyricism, now tinged with childlike innocence well articulated by the soloist, continued in the Intermezzo second movement. Here the piano was hardly noticeable as a separate instrument and almost fully blended into the orchestra. In the final movement the piano became a little more assertive, puncturing the calm with volleys of emphatic chords which the strings would vigorously return. The soloist also demonstrated virtuosity with rapid runs up and down the keyboard and trills.

One would have thought that among the “romantics” on the programme, Wagner would most deserve the epithet “glorious”, but it turned out otherwise. Compared with the prelude to Parsifal, which went nowhere for a long time and could be quite unnerving, the “Good Friday Music” pulsated with vigour. Even then, the magnificent brass didn’t seem to have enough breathing space to sound expansive in the rather crammed City Hall concert hall. It wasn’t the best location for Maestro Trinks to showcase the skills he picked up in Bayreuth under Christian Thielemann.

It was a delightful evening of cerebral romantic fare – musically correct, intellectual and quite dignified, but was it really that glorious?