Classical Music Reviews
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Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra

Concert Hall, Hong Kong / Cultural Centre / Hong Kong / Jun 29, 2019 / Ernest Wan /

Near the end of this 45th anniversary season of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, audiences were treated to a Finnish programme, performed by Finnish guest artists, that included the local premiere of the acclaimed Clarinet Concerto (2002) by prominent composer Magnus Lindberg. 

Notwithstanding the characteristically sophisticated musical language, the Concerto is eminently accessible. It begins and ends in unambiguous, life-affirming C major, with a folk-like opening melody that recurs several times like an anchor of stability amid more changeable material. The orchestra, led by Osmo Vänskä, featured a large battery of percussion instruments and produced a diverse range of enchanting colours, with solo clarinetist Kari Kriikku’s many tremolo passages adding much to the often shimmering effect. He had worked closely with the composer on the Concerto and given its first performance, and it was a marvel that he played almost non-stop in this 28-minute work with apparent ease, overcoming one hurdle after another along the way, from seemingly endless series of arpeggios to passages employing advanced techniques such as multiphonics and overtone glissandi.

Kari Kriikku and the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. Photo by Christine Cheuk. 
Courtesy the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra.

The authority with which Kriikku performed Lindberg’s Concerto was matched by Vänskä’s command over the Second Symphony (1902) of Jean Sibelius, a pioneer of Finnish musical nationalism. Vänskä has long been one of the world’s foremost Sibelius interpreters, and here, just as in his classic recordings with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, he brought out the austerity of this music simply by not doing what the score does not expressly ask for — notably, by refraining from effecting supposedly expressive changes of tempo now and then, which many conductors do. As is crucial in Sibelius, textures were clear, climaxes were majestic and
the tricky transitions between sections were masterfully handled throughout. It is a shame, however, that in recent years Vänskä’s penchant for extreme dynamics and tempi have apparently turned into a mannerism, so that the passage in the development of the first movement beginning with a steady drumbeat was nearly inaudible, and the movement marked “Tempo andante” started off at a glacial pace. Elsewhere his rendition was wholly convincing, and his imagination and insight were never in doubt.

While the progression from darkness to light in the last three movements of the Symphony has frequently been construed politically, despite Sibelius’s objections, no such interpretative controversy surrounds his best-known work, Finlandia (1900), which was also on the programme: it is a revised version of Suomi Herää (Finland Awakens), one of the pieces he wrote in protest against the process of Russification by which the Russian Empire gradually divested the Grand Duchy of Finland of its autonomous status. Under Vänskä’s baton, the tone poem’s portentous opening was unusually oppressive, its sense of threat unusually palpable. Following the section suggesting national awakening and struggle, the famous hymn tune had a tentative quality to it and sounded more like a glimmer of hope than a promise of eventual liberation — an atmosphere of uncertainty that might well have acquired an extra resonance for Hongkongers this summer.

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