If the purpose of the Hong Kong Sinfonietta’s programme yesterday in the City Hall Concert Hall was to show that rear-guard romanticism is no match for intelligent modernism, it more or less succeeded. The tenuous connection to the Le French May Festival was pianist Rémi Geniet, who was not only swamped by the orchestra in Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor, but was also upstaged by the other works by Arvo Pärt, Stravinsky and the Sinfonietta’s own Artist Associate Chan Hing-yan.

Hong Kong Sinfonietta © Hong Kong Sinfonietta Ltd.
Hong Kong Sinfonietta
© Hong Kong Sinfonietta Ltd.

As the hallmark of nostalgic and anachronistic romanticism at the beginning of the 20th century, Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto is a workhorse that provides ample scope for spontaneity, fluidity and intuition, little of which was evident last night. It’s no fault of Rémi Geniet’s that we could hardly hear him beyond the initial chords in the opening section of the first movement: with few exceptions, many a competent pianist before him has suffered the same fate, as the orchestral part is marked fortissimo, after all. The agoraphobic acoustics of the City Hall Concert Hall, which tend to amplify the orchestra, didn’t help either. Yet for his playing to be submersed under the orchestra for such large portions of the movement was unusual. Although conductor Yip Wing-sie wasn’t driving the orchestra any harder than usual, perhaps she could have given the young man more of a break.

For his part, the soloist appeared self-conscious, trying hard to make sure he got all the complex details right. Technical competence, however, did not transcend into musicality, resulting in a stiff and detached delivery. The Adagio sostenuto movement, a soporific and lilting drawl, sounded more perfunctory than inspired. Fortunately, he seemed to have settled in his stride in the finale and carried off the wallowing lyricism with just the right dose of virtuosic splendour.

I couldn’t help thinking that Rémi Geniet had been somewhat set up by the brief opening work: a moving and infectious account of Darf ich… for solo violin, bell (ad lib.) & strings by Arvo Pärt, in which Concertmaster James Cuddeford led a reduced version of the orchestra. Warm in tone, measured in pacing and sympathetic in treatment, Cuddeford deftly avoided making the work a poor cousin of acerbic austerity – a pleasant surprise.

Chan Hing-yan’s Hark the Phoenix Solitaire Cry (2017), which the composer describes as “a dialogue for sheng and orchestra”, quotes from, and is a successor to, Stravinsky’s The Firebird suite. As such, it should have been the final work, but the decision to place it first after the intermission helped maintain the attention of the audience. The sheng (the Chinese mouth-organ) consists of vertical pipes connected to a long perpendicular mouthpiece at the bottom. Its combination with instruments of the traditional western orchestra made for an interesting soundscape. Originally composed for soloist Loo Sze-wang’s début in Milan in 2016, Hark has been “extensively revised”, in the words of to the composer.

Interludes on the highest register of two oboes, positioned in the front box seat on the upper level on either side of the hall, separated the three main sections of the work. Instruments of the orchestra were pitted against one another to provide a rather slippery roller-coaster underpinning for the soloist. Low humming strings and rolling timpani infused the first section with sombre gloom; the bongo accentuated moments of excitement borrowed from the “Infernal Dance” of The Firebird in the second; and pizzicato strings sounded like col legno gymnastics in the third, which tested the extremes of orchestral timbres. It was amazing that the huffing and puffing of Loo Sze-wang kept up with the raucous and unrelenting pace of the orchestra, probably winning the duel with the timpani.

Stravinsky’s The Firebird suite was by far the crowning glory of the evening. Fully exploring the full gamut of moods in the 1919 abridged version, the wind and brass sections of the orchestra stood out in particular. Particularly of note was the soothing elegance of solo violin, oboe, clarinet and bassoon in “The Princess’ Round Dance”; the oboe and bassoon made the “Berceuse” all the more lugubrious; the thumping bass drum accelerated to delirium in the “Infernal Dance”; and the horn was beautiful in its announcement of Kastchei’s demise in the finale.

An evening in which Rachmaninov’s romanticism is trumped by the modernism of Arvo Pärt is rare, but it happened with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta.