Royal Concertgebouw revisits Hong Kong with Schubert and Brahms

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra revisits Hong Kong after 19 years with a programme of German symphonic works.

Myung-Whun Chung, the conductor touring with the Concertgebouw to Hong Kong and Shanghai, may not be immediately associated with German romantic works; instead he is best known for his colourful and careful interpretations of the late French composer Olivier Messiaen, whom Mr. Chung has had a close working relation. His recordings of Messiaen, including the Turangalîla-Symphonie, Des canyons aux étoiles and Trois Petites Liturgies, released on occasion of Messiaen centenary anniversary, are among the finest interpretations.

Why not Messiaen in Hong Kong? I do not have a chance to ask the conductor himself (I haven’t requested for that anyway). It is never a wild idea either. Sir Simon Rattle brought Hong Kong an evening of Turangalîla back in 1991, when he toured to the Hong Kong Arts Festival with City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. And Sir Rattle is surely a great Messiaen interpreter of the generation as well.

We understand that there are lots of factors to consider while programming a world tour. But with Myung-Whun Chung in Hong Kong conducting Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms, it is somehow as surreal as hearing Arthur Rubinstein playing in a recital of anything but Chopin. It is beyond doubt that they are all great musicians. But it is sad that we do not have an opportunity to experience Mr. Chung with the music that claim him to great artistic achievement.

The concert opens with Der Freischütz Overture with a rich tone that is not frequently resonating in the Hong Kong Cultural Centre concert hall. The firm double bass pizzicato with the timpani strokes are profoundly delightful to hear. The music has a well controlled thrust, though the orchestra sometimes lacks refinement in individual voices. The Unfinished Symphony of Franz Schubert is more held back and relaxed, with focuses shifted on the beauty of melodic lines and the subtle waves of inner textures.

Brahms’ D-major symphony concludes the concert. Mr. Chung’s expansive layout of the first movement reminds me of late Kurt Sanderling, who has also taken a careful approach in contemplating the inner tension of the symphony instead of working out to pump up heart beats. It is not always effective though, as the general effectiveness of phrasing not as ideal as the beginning Der Freischütz. However individual instrument shines with superb solo, particularly the beautiful horn solo of the first movement that brings the movement to a subtly emotional close.

The Brahms presented here is not a figure of conflicting persona of shining lyricism and deep melancholy; that contradictory existence may be over-dramatic, but this is not a calm rendition either. There are times of unrest, especially in the second movement when the music quickly travels afar to B minor and G minor with a rumbling bass, the beauty of the melody is never challenged. Melodically speaking, the second symphony is perhaps the most delightful of all symphonies, giving it a cheerful candy-wrap. The Royal Concertgebouw makes a good balance in making the melodies splendid, not making it too fancy nor too serious. That said, the performance has not explored all the emotion corners laid down in the symphonic map. It is an effective performance, but somehow it is a few newtons short in making Brahms a great impact.

The concert ends with an encore of Brahms’ first Hungarian Dance, a natural choice out of instinct with lively and energetic music concluding the first concert of two in the 40th Hong Kong Arts Festival.


Date: February 13, 2012
Venue: Concert Hall, Hong Kong Cultural Centre

Photo © Hans Samsom; Myung-Whun Chung photo © Riccardo Musacchio

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