“Oh God, oh God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Mahler’s scrawled superscription to the Purgatorio of his incomplete Tenth Symphony leaves little doubt as to the composer’s level of emotional anguish at the time. Enter Shostakovich, equally as savvy in depicting turmoil and bleak desolation, and the scene was well set in Hong Kong's Cultural Centre for a thorough exploration of innermost emotions reflected in two tenth symphonies.

Jaap van Zweden conducts the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra © Ka Lam | HK Phil
Jaap van Zweden conducts the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra
© Ka Lam | HK Phil

Opting for Willem Mengelberg’s meatier (and Alma-approved) 1924 performing version of the Adagio and Purgatorio of Mahler’s Symphony no. 10, Jaap van Zweden and the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra showed once again their special affinity for the composer by excelling throughout their reading of Mahler’s bleakest journey. Right from the searching viola opening to the final sighs of the Adagio, the strings gave warmth to their sound with assuredness that belied the movement’s agonising fragility. As this focused timbre was transformed into a new (vibrato-scarce) dimension, the final moments of relative peace that emerge from the movement’s crushing dissonances felt all the more vulnerable and special.

Serenity was short-lived though, Mahler’s quirky Purgatorio – punctuated here with tart, razor-sharp interjections throughout the orchestra – provides precious little relief from Gustav’s emotional torture, predominantly stemming from Alma’s affair with architect-of-fame Walter Gropius and his own terminal heart condition.

The excitement that van Zweden and the HK Phil generated never let up after the break, and nor did the musical gloom and doom. Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 10 in E minor was written at an all-time low-point in the composer’s career; his “un-Soviet” and witty Ninth led to a vicious denouncement by the Union of Composers and his immediate dismissal from all teaching posts. Stalin never forgave him for that “musical mischief”!

Jaap van Zweden conducts the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra © Ka Lam | HK Phil
Jaap van Zweden conducts the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra
© Ka Lam | HK Phil

But Friday’s performance of the Tenth was one to write home about. Van Zweden was skilful, never allowing his musicians to over-wallow in brooding grief and rage in the lengthy Moderato. Brisk at first, his Moderato (+) pace soon made perfect sense as new and darker material unfolded. High violin intonation was ever-reliable as the string players managed to retain their sound richness within the hollow tonality, setting the perfect stage for the eerie stillness of Andrew Simon’s wonderfully haunting clarinet solo.

That Shostakovich’s violent Scherzo-like Allegro is a depiction of Stalin himself is dubious at best. But there was no doubting the thrill generated by the orchestra’s syncopations and rhythmic drive. For all its military precision, the interpretation neared the cusp of pure terror.

When the Russian’s famous signature motif D-S-C-H (a quasi play on German notation for D-E flat-C-B) first appears in correct order in the Allegretto, van Zweden and the band had loads of fun with it, exaggerating the quirkiness of the sardonic elements. But fun was only fleeting. Jiang’s finely played horn solo signalled the composer’s love interest and student Elmira Nazirova with (E-La-Mi-Re-A), a motif that alternates with Shostakovich’s but never quite merges.

Wintry desolation returned, the fabulous woodwind players expertly embellishing the icy backdrop of bleakness, Michael Wilson’s wonderfully ponderous oboe solo a notable example. A tune of jovial naivety was played with great dexterity by the first violins, hinting at optimism and then triggering a brilliant Allegro free-for-all dance. But alas, the fateful D-S-C-H motif crashed the party in unison, serving as a not-so-gentle reminder of ever-looming darkness amidst joy. It was quite a tale.


*****