The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (you should really go out and buy the paper!) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at Symphony Hall, Birmingham on 3rd March 2015.
A single Chinese character forms the title of Fung Lam’s 40th-anniversary showpiece for the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. In English, three paragraphs of programme notes merely leave the impression that its English name, Quintessence, doesn’t quite cover it. What the piece actually does, via a series of brief, memorable ideas – flashing violin runs, percussion and harp tracery, deep Sibelian brass chords – is provide a mini-concerto for orchestra that leaves absolutely no doubt about the HK Phil’s collective virtuosity.
And yet, Lam doesn’t really draw on this orchestra’s greatest strengths. The opening bars of Dvorak’s 9th Symphony laid those out unmistakably: a rich, focussed and gloriously warm-sounding string section, phrasing and moving together, plus as characterful and expressive a woodwind and horn team as you could hope to find anywhere in Bohemia.
Conductor Jaap van Zweden shaped a brisk but intensely lyrical performance – with long, singing lines that gave a really epic sense of sweep, notwithstanding van Zweden’s tendency to micromanage phrase endings and tempo changes. The whispered string phrases that underscored Kwan Sheung-fung’s plangent cor anglais solo in the Largo were wonderfully expressive and tender.
The sheer beauty of the orchestral sound was also the most enjoyable aspect of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, with Ning Feng as soloist. The spin has promised great things about Feng’s playing; more significantly, so has the orchestral grapevine. He has stage presence, and – when he doesn’t force it – a powerful, shining tone. But in this of all concertos, a little more nuance really wouldn’t have gone amiss. This was a reading that sported oh-so-stylishly in the shallows.