Review: Beethoven Symphonies Nos. 1 & 9


All good things must come to an end. The fourth and closing chapter of the HK Phil’s Beethoven symphony cycle finished with, apropos, the “bookend symphonies.” After faltering on the opening night, the HK Phil bounced back with a series of well-executed performances that proved the sceptics wrong. The programme culminated in the Choral symphony, the most ambitious composition to be attempted by the orchestra this season. 

Heavily influenced by Mozart and Haydn, the 25-minute Symphony No. 1 made for a light aperitif, and a rather short first half. The piece failed to fire up the HK Phil, at least at the outset. The first movement felt sluggish and bland, and I could almost hear music director Jaap van Zweden utter those dreaded words from the film Whiplash: “Not my tempo!” By mid-movement in the andante cantabile, however, the symphony began to warm to the players, and they responded with greater energy and crisper sound. 
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 is not only the most important piece of Western music ever written, its Ode to Joy final movement – using text from Frederich Schiller’s eponymous poem – is a celebration of humanity and universal brotherhood. Leonard Bernstein conducted it in unified Germany after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, and the European Union chose it as its anthem. Expectations were so high that the HK Phil might have experienced a bit of stage fright. The balance was way off base in the opening section, in which the all-important second violin tremolos were entirely obscured by the wind instruments. The climactic fortissimo recapitulation also lacked impact. As it did in the first half of the evening (and in the overall symphony cycle for that matter), the orchestra recovered after the initial stumble and dusted itself off. The third movement, a song-like adagio that aches with beauty, was delivered with elegance and grace, adorned with creamy notes from the strings that spirited the audience to, in Schiller’s own words, Elysium and Heiligtum. 
But all that was mere preparation for the final choral movement. After the self-referencing passages that the composer cleverly embedded in the instrumental main theme came the Ode to Joy for which music fans had been holding their collective breath. Korean baritone Kwangchul Youn, who boasts credentials from La Scala and Wiener Staatsoper, was a human subwoofer that blew the audience away. Mezzo soprano Deborah Humble and tenor Charles Reid also held their own. Soprano Emily Magee cancelled last minute due to an illness and, much to van Zweden’s chagrin, her replacement Emma Bell did the same just before the dressed rehearsal (it was flu season after all). The conductor ended up plucking a chorus girl from Beijing’s NCPA Chorus to sing the lead part, a move that recalls the storyline from the Phantom of the Opera. Even though Zhou Yuqian’s projection needed improvement, that she was able to step up on such short notice and pull off a near-flawless performance has won her much praise. Last but not least, the pitch- and diction-perfect NCPA Chorus was jawdroppingly good. That’s what happens when you pick the best talent from a population of 1.3 billion and voice-train them like Olympic athletes every day. The troupe left everyone in awe and wanting more.
After the big finish, the audience responded with a standing ovation and seemingly endless curtain calls. A good number refused to leave the concert hall and lingered for another quarter hour. They were united in one sentiment: van Zweden has taken the HK Phil to a new level, one that neither the musicians nor their fans knew existed. With his New York Philharmonic appointment all but assured, the hope is that the Dutch maestro will be kind enough to split his time across the Pacific and keep his gig in Hong Kong for at least a few more years if not longer. Jason Y. Ng


Add your comment

The best gigs and concerts in HK

This fortnight's best gigs, concerts and festivals. Read more