Tuesday, 23 March 2010

HONG KONG ARTS FESTIVAL: Freiburg Baroque Orchestra

Hong Kong Arts Festival 2010
Freiburg Baroque Orchestra
Rene Jacobs, Conductor
Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall
Saturday (13 March 2010)
You either love or hate music performed on period instruments. Actually I am quite persuaded by the authentic music movement, having grown up with a diet of Karajan, Böhm and Bernstein’s big bands playing music from the baroque and classical eras. Stodgy is a word that comes to mind, but that does not apply to those groups helmed by the likes of Gardiner, Pinnock, Norrington, Brüggen, Herreweghe and now René Jacobs.

I have enjoyed the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and Jacobs’ work on Harmonia Mundi in recent years, so it was a pleasure to hear them in the flesh. The small forces employed for Haydn and Mozart works was particularly apt given their historical background. So the little known Haydn Symphony No.91 in E flat major (not blest with a nickname) sounded fresh and lithe. Although shorn of Romantic vibrato, it was not a bit lightweight. The slow introduction was clear and fuss free, leading into an Allegro assai which burst forth with energy and life. The jaunty Andante theme of the second movement was reminiscent of its counterpart in the Surprise Symphony (No.94) but without the “big bang”. And there was a jocular bassoon solo that delighted in its good humour. The minuet movement was energetic, contrasted with a courtly Trio, while the finale raced ahead with vitality and joy. It may be said that Haydn possessed that rambunctious manner that was inherited by Beethoven (rather than Mozart).

Mozart, however, is a rule to his own. His keyboard concertos set a new benchmark; even his slender Piano Concerto No.19 in F major (K.459) could not have been written by anyone else. To this underrated masterpiece, the orchestra adopted a very brisk tempo, its light and intimate sound flew as if carried on humming bird wings. Fortepianist Sebastian Wienand’s (left) felicitous touches included discrete ornamentations very much in the spirit of the music. The 1st movement cadenza was sensitively played yet had a soloistic feel.
The Allegretto slow movement was all grace and elegance, setting up the animated opening solo for the finale. Bubbly and light-hearted, the music foretold the wicked wit of Mozart’s own The Magic Flute, while the short fugal section a portent of the finale from the Jupiter Symphony, and to look even further ahead, Beethoven’s Eroica. It was a generous and warm hearted performance that delighted the soul.

After a long first half, the second half was relatively short, only Mozart’s Symphony No.38 in D major (K.504), or the Prague Symphony. While the opening introduction seemed imposing, the Allegro exuded the same Magic Flute humour. Again, the baroque ensemble sounded totally at ease in this idiom. Every time I hear the slow movement’s second subject, I am ever more convinced that this was the “enigma” theme of Elgar’s famous orchestral variations. If you don’t believe it, try listening to it over and over again. The finale was again a joyous affair, dominated by the two chirpy flutes and oboes. Mozart really knew how to muster his instruments for the right effect. And if the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra’s view to performing classical music does not convince, I think nothing else will.


Vincent4Wang said...

Look at the line-up of HK Arts Fest in recent years, SAF is really not on the same level, as long as classical is concerned. This year, ASMF is the only decent one. Can't remember when was the last time a full orchestra visiting as part of SAF...

Chang Tou Liang said...

Totally agree with you, Vincent. Music has also been a strong suit with HKAF. Their biggest show this year is the Mariinsky Opera with Valery Gergiev doing Britten's Turn of the Screw. That won't happen in Singapore for a million years!