Not Quite the Berlin Philharmonic

SwitzerlandSwitzerland  Beethoven, Prokofiev  Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Ning Feng (violin), Jaap van Zweden (conductor)  27.2.15 (JR)

Beethoven:  Violin Concerto
Prokofiev:    Symphony No. 5

The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra can trace its origins back to 1895 under the name Sino-British Orchestra. It changed its name in 1957 and has been fully professional since 1974. It receives financial support from the Hong Kong Government, the Swire Group and the Hong Kong Jockey Club. Jaap van Zweden, a former Konzertmeister at the Concertgebouw, took over from Edo de Waart in late 2012 and has increased the size of the orchestra. He has grand plans such as a concert version of the entire Ring to be performed both in Hong Kong and in mainland China.

 Having fairly recently heard the Shanghai and Guangzhou (Canton) Philharmonics, I was keen to compare and contrast these with their Hong Kong counterparts. One critic has said of the Hong Kong Philharmonic that they are the “Berlin Phil. of Asia”. Well, on this performance, I hesitate to venture that far but they may well be the best that part of the globe can currently offer; and mighty good they certainly are. The strings, right back to the rear desks, have a rich bloom and, as you would expect, they are exceptionally well drilled. Most of the brass (with the notable exception of an excellent principal horn) and woodwind appear to be of European or American extraction and not overly individualistic. The violinists are almost entirely Chinese, and as the instruments get larger, the Chinese contingent decreases. By the time you reach the double basses, it’s almost entirely tall non-Chinese men.

 The first half of the concert was dedicated to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and the soloist was Ning Feng. Born in Chengdu over thirty years ago, he studied initially at the Sichuan Conservatory, then Berlin (where he now lives) and finally the Royal Academy of Music, where as a student he was the first in the Academy’s 200-year history to score 100% in his final recital. I am not surprised, his technique was flawless and finger-work breath-taking (showed off to particularly exhilarating effect in a sizzling encore on his 1721 “Macmillan” Strad). The cadenza of the Beethoven kept the audience utterly rapt. His mature interpretation of the concerto was conservative, which is not meant as a criticism – it was all beyond reproach. Feng displays no histrionics of any sort. He was most impressive whenever a delicate touch was called for. Van Zweden was a sensitive accompanist, holding the orchestra back almost throughout. His tempo in the slow movement did however tend to be a mite lumbering.

 Audiences in Zurich have heard little Prokofiev over the years so it was a real pleasure to hear what is probably his most popular symphony, the Fifth, in a splendid performance. A great deal of rehearsal time had been audibly lavished on every bar. There was no shortage of volume or pizzazz. The symphony showcased the orchestra’s many talents. Once again the slow movement threatened to fall apart at the outset with van Zweden’s choice of slowish tempo but all had come together by the time of the huge dissonant outburst which van Zweden stressed to excellent effect. The brilliant final movement and exuberant ending brought whoops of delight from many and we were rewarded by two surprising encores: the Ride of the Valkyries (where the orchestra blotted its copybook with some messy brass) and a boisterous Slavonic Dance.

 The orchestra came fresh from its appearance at Cadogan Hall and the Musikverein in Vienna, and continues its tour to Eindhoven, Birmingham, Berlin and Amsterdam. Catch them (with Ning Feng as an added bonus) if you can – you will not be disappointed.

 John Rhodes

Leave a Comment