For a composer of his legacy and influence, Beethoven surprisingly produced only one opera, which he revised twice and for which he wrote four versions of an overture. The one most often performed as a stand alone concert piece is the Leonore no. 3 – Leonore being the name of the heroine in the opera who assumes the fake identity of a man, Fidelio, to save her imprisoned husband. The Hong Kong Sinfonietta, under guest conductor Roberto Forés Veses, sounded like someone who had just woken up with a hangover. The strings were hoarse, the flute was far too loud, and throughout the slow introduction there was simply a sense of chaos. It wasn’t until the Allegro theme that the pieces started coming together. It wasn’t an auspicious start to the evening.

Roberto Forés Veses © Jean-Baptiste Millot
Roberto Forés Veses
© Jean-Baptiste Millot

Schumann never truly set out to write a piano concerto. The one he did write, which he considered a “hybrid”, started out as a single-movement Fantasie. The other two movements were added, as it were, as afterthoughts. The opening shot is a single strike by the orchestra, following which the piano throws a tantrum of descending chords, as the oboe provides a voice of reason with a lilting melody, which the piano then sheepishly imitates. For the rest of the movement, the piano weaves in and out of the orchestral contours and engages in enjoyable episodic flirtations with the woodwinds. Soloist Florian Uhlig was the embodiment of precision and correctness, the downside of which was a degree of coolness and detachment. His fingering was fluid enough, but a little more legato and spontaneity would have added warmth and friendliness. Herr Schumann would doubtless have expected his wife Clara, who premièred the work, to be more expressive.

The Intermezzo second movement is an elegant interlude of childlike candour, a far cry from the hurly-burly of the first. A repeated four-note exchange between piano and orchestra gives way to a lullaby-like melody on strings, with the clarinet dropping the occasional throwaway hint. Mr Uhlig’s pacing was a little brisker than I expected but his rapport with the orchestra was palpable, nudging it along without being overly interfering. The final Allegro vivace movement offers plenty of room for soloist to showcase virtuosity and dexterity, which Mr Uhlig was quick to exploit. His relatively light touch highlighted well the jaunty aspects of the movement and support from the orchestra was well paced. Yet it did not come across as particularly inspiring or insightful.

Recalled to the stage by three rounds of applause, Mr Uhlig pulled a “Vladimir Horowitz” on us playing Schumann’s Träumerei from his Kinderszenen. While on its own it was a delicate and thoughtful treatment, he had high expectations to live up to and didn’t quite match the dreaminess and imagination of the late master.

Amidst uncertainty about what Sibelius means in his Symphony no. 4 in A minor, we can at least be sure that the score is exactly as he intended: “I cannot find a single note in it that I could remove, nor can I find anything to add,” he is reported to have said. A study into the deepest recesses of human consciousness – a “psychological symphony”, as Sibelius himself described it – the work is a treacherous test of stamina and flexibility. Not only do conductor and orchestra have to contend with a gamut of dynamic variations and rhythmic stretches, they also have to tread carefully in a terrain of tonal experimentation.

The initial menacing boom of the first movement on low strings and bassoon delivers a strong dose of anxiety, if not desperation. The solo cello then serves up cries of loneliness and alienation. The descent into a vortex of depression seems to abate with a brass chorale followed by the initial brightness of the second movement, which turns into intense statements of catharsis in the slow third movement. For a moment the finale seems to offer rays of hope, but in the end there was no real conclusion.

The Sinfonietta made a valiant attempt to capture the sense of desolation, loss and darkness, but it took the first movement, marked Tempo molto moderato, quasi adagio too fast, diminishing the contrast with the dance-like, sprightly start of the scherzo. Soloist cameos were patchy, with the woodwinds doing better than the strings except in the finale where the oboe’s slap of the flute was too light. The conductor’s choice of glockenspiel over tubular bells in the final movement added some bright sparks to the death weight. At times, though, he was rhythmically adrift. Full marks to the orchestra for even trying this demanding work nevertheless.