Going out with a bang may be a cliché, but it’s nevertheless an apt description of the Hong Kong Sinfonietta’s final concert in the current season. It wasn’t until Principal Guest Conductor Christoph Poppen announced it that we realised we were bidding farewell to the season. As it turned out, the evening marked a watershed in the Sinfonietta’s musical development. The high turnout for the concert was due undoubtedly to the programme of reliable crowd-drawers of Beethoven and Mozart, but as the evening ran its course, I was convinced it was as much the quality of music making as it was the programme.

Martin Helmchen © Giorgia Bertazzi
Martin Helmchen
© Giorgia Bertazzi

Anton Webern is musically so far removed from Beethoven and Mozart that the inclusion of his Variations for Orchestra looked like a perfunctory salute to the 20th century. Yet his place in the Second Viennese School implies that there must be a First Viennese School, for which, according to the programme notes, we have to turn to the time of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Thus, it was fitting for him to be there after all.

A hurried splash on double bass that opened the Variations was typical of the disparate and episodic nature of the work. The absence of sustained notes and tutti passages ensured a sense of jittery vigilance, and the numerous pauses demanded superb concentration. The Sinfonietta tackled the challenge with flying colours, like members of a chamber tag team ensemble. Their precise timing maintained a finely tuned tension between dashes and drawls, at the same time highlighting the contrast among instrumental timbres.

Martin Helmchen, soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major, was a pianistic figure skater on the orchestral rink of the Sinfonietta: precise, elegant, fluid and smooth. With his back straight as an ironing board but leaning a little backward, he began the work with the characteristically modest chords that gave way to a long lyrical orchestral discourse, much like a wife responding eloquently to subdued remarks by a timorous husband. Launching in turn into a breathtaking round of virtuosic fingering, brilliant but without a hint of kitsch, Helmchen eventually settled down into a more equal and smoother dialogue with the orchestra.

Grumbling thuds on low strings opened the second movement, like a plaintive husband making a half-hearted attempt at assertion. The response from the piano was soothing and restful, as if someone was trying to placate him. Slow motion interaction between soloist and orchestra continued, until the piano entered a trance of self-reflection.

The last movement started with a short orchestral statement which the soloist picked up and developed into a flurry of soap bubbles that quickly dissipated. The exchange continued in fits of wit and humour, always jovial and in high spirits, with the orchestra displaying lush and sinewy charisma. Occasional emphatic chords broke the soloist’s lightness of touch, until the orchestra chimed in with a rambunctious fanfare to signal the triumph of domestic bliss.

Mozart’s Symphony no. 41 in C major, “Jupiter”, was a fitting conclusion to the season. Although the composer didn’t quite give the work its name, whoever coined it probably perceived thunder, lightning and general cosmic commotion of sorts in the work. The Sinfonietta didn’t quite go that far, but moments of vigour were plentiful throughout. Poppen carefully managed the contrast between belligerence and melancholy in the first movement, although he could have done more to bring out the frustrated romantic idealism.

I have often been struck by the somewhat recalcitrant woodwinds in the Sinfonietta, but in the second movement they provided much support to the palpable sensuality, the strings being the most luxuriant I had heard from this ensemble. The Minuet chugged along rhythmically in mild elation, as if getting ready for the wild festivity to come, never missing a beat. 

The Molto allegro finale was a celebration of the most dignified order. Unable to parse the complex fugal elements, I was able to tell nevertheless that had the conductor been less effective, the movement would have been a wild ride to nothingness. The timpani and low strings kept the activities anchored to a pivot as the rest of the orchestra went on their rampage of soaring exultation. As the movement drew to its triumphant close, I kept thinking what a giant step the Sinfonietta had taken in its journey to musical maturity.

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