As the last stop of their five-city international tour, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra made its debut in the Sydney Opera House. The Concert Hall filled up almost completely and, perhaps understandably, a higher than usual proportion of the audience was of Chinese or other Asian provenance. Their anticipation was almost tangible and the collective might of one of the foremost orchestras in the Asian region did live up to their expectations.

Jaap van Zweden
© Hans van der Woerd

It was a brave, but ultimately successful decision to start the programme with a contemporary composition, Quintessense by Fung Lam, one of Hong Kong’s own composers.  The title (in the original Chinese with more than one meaning) refers to aether, the fifth element according to the ancient Greek philosophy after earth, air, fire and water. Even at first hearing it sounds like an intelligent and inspired work. In its slightly eclectic sonic sphere one is reminded at times of the by now almost traditional harmonic world of Stravinsky or Bartók (how ironic!) with easily distinguishable motivic progress of various melodies, while elsewhere, the sound mirrors a more modern, but always interesting and colourful musical concept. The orchestra has played this piece at home and on tour a number of times over the last few years, and their confidence while performing it was satisfying to see. All details were observed and controlled by the extremely precise and attentive gestures of the orchestra’s Music Director, Jaap van Zweden.

The Violin Concerto no. 4 in D major, K.218 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart followed with Ning Feng as the soloist. Performing Mozart’s music can be one of the hardest tasks for professional musicians on account of its extreme transparency, seemingly simple but actually deep and complex beauty. Arguably taking a later, for example, Romantic or 20th-century concerto on an international tour could be easier, as it tends to be more demonstrative of the soloist’s and the orchestra’s skills.

Ning Feng started (unusually for a soloist not known for his interest in historical performance practices) with playing the tutti violin part together with the orchestra’s first violins, before launching into the solo with evident commitment and an impeccable technique. His performance may not have been revolutionary, but is was unfailingly sensitive to the many fine nuances of this work. His tone was mesmerizingly velvety, particularly in the lower registers of his instrument. I was somewhat disappointed in the accompaniment of the orchestra and its conductor though; Mozart’s “simple” rhythms were more than once untidy, causing occasional ensemble problems between soloist and orchestra, and the conductor seemed to be satisfied with a rather bland, middle-of-the-road approach.

It all changed after interval, in the performance of Symphony no. 1 in D major by Gustav Mahler (the commonly used title “Titan” was withdrawn by the composer after the first few performances), a perfect showcase for van Zweden’s renowned ability for powerfully executed musical edifices of the Romantic era. Under his ever-watchful eyes, the orchestra played with remarkable precision. All details were carefully planned, directed and played, leaving not much room for spontaneity (something I missed), but offering a robust performance.

This symphony begins mysteriously, almost reluctantly. Under the silver lining of a sustained, menacingly vertiginous high A on the strings, we hear fragments of melodies: an obstinately recurring pair of notes, descending fourths, then later, gloomy horn calls and off-stage trumpets. The slow introduction eventually flows into the leisurely main part of the movement (Immer sehr gemächlich – warns the composer’s tempo marking), where all these fragments get their meaning and many of them turn out to be reminders, originated in Mahler’s song cycle, the Songs of a Wayfarer, written only a few years earlier. Reminders prevail in this most nostalgic symphony, which is full of yearning for the forever gone, untranslatably gemütlich times, sunlit “olde” days of peaceful Vienna at the end of the 19th century. Hence the tipsy hiccups at the beginning of the second movement, the nursery song Frère Jacques given to a muted, timpani-accompanied double bass solo at the beginning of the third (this was one of the most heart-warming renditions of this difficult solo I have ever heard), and the mellow, bittersweet melodies throughout. As a total contrast, the gigantic last movement sweeps all nostalgia aside with its wildly screaming beginning and continuous anguish, another hallmark of Mahler’s music.

There were no weak parts in this well-oiled orchestral machinery; the brass section sounded mighty but never without control, the longing cello melodies were completely unified in their sonority and openly sentimental feeling. Some of the clarinet section’s solos were performed with the instruments pointing towards the ceiling for better resonance (an idea Mahler himself initiated) and, by Jove, nothing sounds as majestically opulent as such a chorus of eight French horns standing up, well-tuned and in full fortissimo flight, making the final minutes of the symphony truly memorable.