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Elegant Ice Queen versus Ebullient Rising Maestro

Hong Kong
Hong Kong Cultural Center, Tsim Sha Tsui
07/03/2009 -  & July 4
Johannes Brahms: Hungarian Dances No.1, 3, 10 – Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77
Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra, Sz. 116

Viktoria Mullova (Violin)
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Zhang Xian (Conductor)

Viktoria Mullova (© Alessandro Marcofulli)

In the final concert of this season, HKPO invited two musically distinguished, but stylistically contrasting musicians as their finale. As a Chinese, we should be proud of having a rising Maestro, Zhang Xian, once again standing under the spotlight of this metropolitan stage; where as a music aficionado, it is delightful to hear one of the most celebrated violinists, Viktoria Mullova rendering Brahms’ Violin Concerto, one of the most popular and demanding pieces within this genre.

Performing this concerto is a risk and challenge to all the violinists. The lengthy work, described by Hans von Bülow as the “concerto against the violin” because of its demanding technique, was consummately recorded by every great master, from Kreisler and Oistrakh to Heifetz and Milstein. Ms. Mullova also made a highly acclaimed recording with Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic in 1995, in which her purity of tone and transcendental virtuosity conquered many of her rivals. A lofty anticipation towards her performances on Friday and Saturday evenings was inevitable. Unfortunately, her analytical and indifferent rendition fell short of this expectation.

Pure intonation and rock-solid technique were Ms. Mullova’s constant features throughout. The uncontainable opening Allegro was driven by her probing intellect and executed with virtually infallible fingers, even in the technically exacting cadenza written by Joachim. However, it was this intellectual approach that sacrificed Brahms’ impassioned intensity, the music’s paramount element. This inhibited emotion was tellingly exemplified in her plain-spoken articulation of the lyrical second theme, a place where most violinists show off their warm intonation and vehement expressivity excessively. Ms. Mullova’s exceptional elegance and gentleness were a unique rarity, but for ears attuned to an emotionally sumptuous Brahms, her reading came across as a monochrome.

In the sentimental second movement, Ms. Mullova’s trademark tonal purity soared every phrase with a light-as-air quality. If David Oistrakh and Gidon Kremer (Mullova’s Russian predecessors) sang this Adagio as an opera aria, Mullova would have been a lied singer who tenderly delineated the score with half-lit colors. But as the music proceeded, she and conductor Zhang seemed to get more impatient with each other’s pace. When Ms. Mullova adopted a more flowing and taut tempo, pushing the music to its climax near the end, Ms. Zhang and the orchestra refrained from picking up the pace, leading to a flubbed climatic ending before the coda. Both the conductor and the soloist struggled to find an intimate and balanced collaboration in the third movement, with the hesitation from the orchestra and Ms. Mullova’s inhibited emotional intensity somewhat ceasing the compelling undercurrents of the music. Brahms’ glorious sonority and rapt expressivity, the most missing ingredients, were buried amidst this icy and tedious interpretation.

For encore, Ms. Mullova delivered the Sarabande from Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor, a piece she recorded with her new recording company Onyx recently. The elegance and refinement, together with her sensitive awareness to exquisite details upstaged the previous concerto.

Comparing to Ms. Mullova’s musical style, conductor Zhang Xian was a more ebullient and exuberant musician. Her rendition of the four Hungarian Dances (with No. 5 as encore) were full of sparkles and glistens, despite some indiscreet details. Bartók’s Concerto for the Orchestra after the intermission was a full-blooded reading, with long awaiting climax in the first half finally appeared through the orchestra’s air-shattering sonority at the end of the first and last movements. This was vividly contrasted by the whispering and barely audible pianissimos in the first and the third movements. Notwithstanding, Ms. Zhang is still a fresh and youthful conductor who needs more experience of working with different orchestras worldwide. The messy patches and heavy-footed string spiccatos in the second movement, as well as her unfamiliarity with the dry acoustics in the Cultural Center were some of the reservations to her interpretation.

With HKPO’s 08/09 season came to an end, we are looking forward to hearing their exciting programs in the coming season (read here). Keep tuned to the Concertonet.com for more reviews.

Danny Kim-Nam Hui



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