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Fantastic French Tradition Inherited by HKPO

Hong Kong
Hong Kong Cultural Center, Tsim Sha Tsui
09/05/2008 -  and September 6*
Messiaen : Les Offrandes oubliées
Ravel: Piano Concerto in G
Berlioz : Symphonie fantastique

Yundi Li (Piano)
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Edo de Waart (Conductor)

Y. Li & E. de Waart (© Cheung Chi Wai)

The 2008-09 HKPO season kicks off with an all-French concert in front of a full-house audience. The concert began with a fresh and bold repertoire – Messiaen – played with coloristic timbre and perfect balance of the orchestra, to the brilliant Ravel concerto performed by the superstar pianist – Yundi Li, ending with Berlioz’ fantastic Fantastic Symphony.

Pianist Joanna MacGregor came to Hong Kong early this year to perform Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus with great success. However, Messiaen’s orchestral works may sound unfamiliar to Hong Kong audience. Les Offrandes oubliées is Messiaen’s first published orchestral work, originally written for piano. The single-movement triptych portrays the Cross, the Sin and the Salvation. This bold choice by Edo de Waart proved he is attuned to Messiaen’s musical language. Every note on the score was personified into spellbinding musical phrases. The careful interpretation of detailed dynamic markings was able to bring out the designated meaning and atmosphere of each section. The accumulated tension built up in the first section was successfully released at the climax near the end of the second section. Lyrical melodies by the first violins supported by the colorful harmony by the lower strings brought this imaginative piece to an end.

Ravel’s Piano Concerto was the highlight of the evening. This concerto is neither as profound as Rachmaninoff’s, nor as enchanting as Chopin’s. However, this “light-hearted” (as described by the composer himself) and technically exacting work sets immense challenge for the performers. It requires a perfect combination of the classical and jazzy styles, a heightened poetic sensitivity for the cantabile melody in the second movement, complemented by virtuosic finger works for flying scales and arpeggios. Yundi Li’s recording with the Berlin Philharmonic under Seiji Ozawa last year won great acclaim by music critics worldwide. Tonight, the young pianist delivered a highly virtuosic and light-hearted version of this piece.

The tempo of the whole concerto was the fastest among all the recordings I have ever heard. Through this tempo, the light and understated aspect was clearly conveyed without sacrificing the fine details and delicacy. However, this deliberate choice (obviously by the soloist rather than the conductor) generated a chase-and-run impression between the soloist and the orchestra throughout the piece. The woodwinds were apparently unable to catch up with Li’s speed during their rapid dialogues. Many fast-running phrases in the first movement were not ended together.

This synchronization problem continued into the second movement, which turned out to be the least satisfactory part of the concerto. The whole movement often sounded as if the composer’s charming melodies and frequent moments of rapt expressivity were being hurried along unceremoniously. The waltz-like accompaniment on left hand was kept too static and steady throughout. Hardly a rubato or agogic accent was applied by Li to bring out the colorful chromatic harmony and modulation. The cantabile melodies were occasionally played with percussive tone, which is definitely not appropriate to this context. As the music went on, Li seemed to be getting more impatient with the orchestral accompaniment. The transitional passage was played with a rushing pace, reminding the chase-and-run impression from the first movement, continuing through the reprise of the main melody played by the English horn. While the English horn player was trying his best to bring out the tenderest and intimate side of the breath-taking melody, Li was still rushing in the running scales and arpeggios. The coda did not end with peace and whisper as it should have. Was it necessary to bring out the heavy inner voice of the left-hand while the viola was already playing the motif from the main theme?

The rapid filigree by the piano generated an unexpected sparkling and wildness to the jazzy third movement. Yundi Li’s playing was enlivened by his clear articulation that suggested an almost improvisatory flow. The clarity of texture, which can hardly be found with other pianists, was another key strength of his rendition. The weak link of this movement was, again, the rushing pace, especially near the end. There were times when this whirlwind pace led to some rhythmic unsteadiness and blurred phrases in the woodwinds and trumpets. The whole concerto ended in a hurry, which was obviously not very welcomed by the audience. Along with the gradually fading-out applause, Li eventually left the stage without giving an encore.

Nonetheless, Yundi Li, who will be 26 next month, still has much room to better equip himself before he reaches his full maturity. Being the new artist-in-residence of HKPO, he will be performing more frequently in Hong Kong. We are looking forward to hearing a more musical and thoughtful Yundi Li rather than a pianist who merely dazzles the audience with his finger-fireworks.

After the intermission, the stage was crowded with musicians. Maestro de Waart marshaled a vast force of the orchestra for this large-scale symphony, claimed as “a disaster” by Berlioz himself during its first rehearsal because of the huge size of the orchestra he required and the demanding techniques and arrangement to instruments. But HKPO was able to handle it with ease under the baton of de Waart. This is my third time, and the most impressive one, to hear HKPO performing this work at the Cultural Centre. The chamber-scale intimacy in the Rêverie, the highly elegant Bal, the extreme loneliness of the shepherd, the powerful and angry Marche and the horrible Sabbat, all successfully depicted the programme, a reflection of Berlioz’ own emotion. The milestone of French impressionism and symbolism were exemplified by HKPO’s high-caliber performance. It must be delightful for the Hong Kong audience to witness the ever-transforming and improving HKPO. Under the superb leadership of Maestro De Waart, the HKPO has already been transformed into a world-class orchestra. We look forward to their challenging programme this season.

Danny Kim-Nam Hui



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