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Edo de Waart’s Symphonic Century II

Hong Kong
Hong Kong Cultural Center, Tsim Sha Tsui
09/21/2008 -  
Franz Schubert: Symphony No.5 in B-flat Major, D.485
Anton Bruckner: Symphony No.7 in E Major

Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Edo de Waart (Conductor)

Edo de Waart (© Cheung-Chi-Wai)

One of the highlights of the 2008-09 HKPO season is the three-concert Symphonic Century series, in which grand-scale German symphonies are delivered under the baton of Edo de Waart. Last week, we had Mahler’s Titan as the triumphant curtain-raiser, tonight there were the enchanting Schubert and the gigantic Bruckner. Next week, there will be the youthful Beethoven and Wagner’s bold Valkyrie.

Schubert composed his Fifth Symphony when he was merely nineteen years old. This symphony is scored for a small orchestra with no clarinets, brass (except a pair of horns) and drums – this is probably the reason why there were no players for these instruments in the amateur orchestra for which he composed and performed this work. HKPO’s exuberant and light-hearted playing fully captured Schubert’s pleasant mood and simplicity by their clear articulation in strings and light-aired woodwinds. Conductor Edo de Waart convincingly presented the structural arc of the piece by putting different colors and intonations at different sections. The most strikingly beautiful moment came from the cantabile main theme in the second movement, with the first violins bringing out the most serene and elegant side of this rapt melody. It was contrasted with the slightest pianissimo in the string accompaniment and the most adventurous dramas for the remote modulations during the middle section, leading to a more moving and flowing reprise of the ornamented main theme. What is really at question with the orchestra’s performance was the balance of different parts, or more precisely, their apparent lack of it. Was it necessary to use ten first violins and four double-basses for this chamber-scale symphony? This massive string orchestra sometimes overshadowed some beautiful tunes in the woodwinds, especially during the attractive duet between the strings and woodwinds in the second movement, and the frequent string tremolos in the Finale. Nonetheless, this was a literal, authentic, and spiritual rendition.

Unlike Schubert’s Fifth, Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony – the first of a final group of three, composed during the last fifteen years of his life – is considerably different from his preceding symphonies by virtue of its greater length and bigger orchestra. The overall cohesion and extensive architecture are the challenges to every conductor. Tonight, Edo de Waart proved that he is able to realize and bring them to surface. The pace of each section and the pauses in between them were carefully measured, turning disparate sections into a unified artwork. The thematic material from the opening bars was emphasized every time when it reoccurred, especially at the end of the last movement, to outline the cohesion of the lengthy symphony. The first movement began with vaporous string tremolos, with cellos singing the main melody charmingly. Unfortunately, the principal horn doubling the cello’s melody burbled and slurred with distressing intonation. The tonal unsteadiness of horns, found in Schubert’s Minuet and throughout the Bruckner, became the most disappointing part of the whole evening. The problem was most serious at the end of the Finale, when cathedral-style grandeur was to be projected by the heavy brass. The strings were still the most stable and reliable part of the whole orchestra, playing burnished pizzicatos in the first movement and cantabile melodies in the second and third. There were many other blissful moments, for instance, when the profound strings soaring out at the beginning of the second movement, the building up of air-shattering climax near the end of the movement, and the highly expressive Trio in the third. Roaring ovation was given by the audience immediately after the last chord. Although this was not a perfect rendition, it was obvious that HKPO has undergone tremendous improvement under the leadership of Edo de Waart, by playing more large-scale orchestral works with top-class standard.

With the Adagio being modeled on the pattern of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony’s Adagio, and the second movement poignantly associated with Wagner’s death, Bruckner’s Seventh leads the Symphonic Century to the climax in the coming week. It is impossible not to admire Maestro de Waart’s wise and intelligent choice of the repertoire. We are looking forward to hearing his Beethoven’s First Symphony and Wagner’s Valkyrie this weekend.

Danny Kim-Nam Hui



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