Beethoven wrote his Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat major in the years of 1787-1789 as a composition to display his career as a performing virtuoso. Tonight’s soloist Yuja Wang is no stranger to Hong Kong audiences and is a household name marked with an unfailing virtuosity, bold approach and signature stage presence. In a concerto that is perhaps less commonly associated with Wang, her performance was insouciant and characteristically lean, played at a steadfast tempo that limited any feeling of rigidity.

Yuja Wang and the HK Philharmonic © Cheung Wai Lok | HK Phil
Yuja Wang and the HK Philharmonic
© Cheung Wai Lok | HK Phil

She displayed astute fingerwork and sparkling clarity as early as her first entry in the opening movement. Her playing blended technical brevity and transparency in tone that was maintained well into the cadenza, in which Wang added much more of her individualistic character of mischief, fizz and youthful energy. The slow movement was characteristically Chopinesque. Both the soloist and the tender orchestral accompaniment produced dialogues that drew from inspirations of waterfalls and raindrops, their voices gradually melting in unison. Wang’s solo re-entry demarcated a turn in character in an unmistakable opening theme of the final movement. It radiated and echoed into greater orchestral festiveness and rhythmic Lisztian touches from the pianist that made the overall performance a testament of her audacity. Wang returned on stage with a tempestuous reading of Prokofiev’s Toccata as witness to her virtuoso prowess.

The second half of the concert left a lot of Mahlerians and even the cohorts of casual concert-goers cheering for an inwardly and musically pure performance led by Jaap van Zweden. Relationships between conductors and orchestras develop in conjunction with the evolving sophistication and expectation of their audiences. The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra under  Jaap van Zweden has been no exception. In tonight’s performance of Mahler's Fifth Symphony, Hong Kong witnessed how far this musical journey between van Zweden and his orchestra has matured to a new Everest in this most complex of scores.

Jaap van Zweden and the HK Philharmonic © Cheung Wai Lok | HK Phil
Jaap van Zweden and the HK Philharmonic
© Cheung Wai Lok | HK Phil

The Fifth is in stark contrast to the composer’s first three symphonies with their choral and song-like references. Beginning with the Fourth and more so in this Fifth Symphony, Mahler placed greater emphasis on virtuosic orchestral playing, and we witnessed this in the clean, controlled and brilliant interpretations from the brass and woodwind sections. Mahler’s genius as a craftsman of thematic motifs and contrasts also became more evident; this was notably displayed in the third movement with blazing horn passages on one hand, followed shortly by the most delicate of pizzicato playing from the strings on the other. This allowed listeners to have wider space for imagination whilst simultaneously increasing one’s level of emotional engagement.

Perhaps, it was the fourth Adagietto movement, that attested to Mahler’s fame as a master of melodies, in which van Zweden guided his strings section to give an unmistakably bitter-sweet, hyper-emotional interpretation. One of van Zweden’s strengths as a programmer has been his dedication to shine a light on targeted sections of the orchestras and see to their growth over time. This is a practice much to be admired and the audience had appreciated the results here.