Wednesday, February 22, 2012

REVIEW: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra with Chung Myun-whun

Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Tuesday February 14

Talk about PRESSURE! The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra was ranked the world’s greatest orchestra back in 2008 by the Gramophone Magazine and was promoted as is by the 40th Hong Kong Arts Festival. Critics, however, doesn’t seem to agree. Sam Olluver of the South China Morning Post concluded, “In the context of a world-class orchestra commanding steep ticket prices, this performance struggled to rate a twinkle, let alone a few stars”. OUCH! It was a damning review and too bad that I was not there to witness it. The bigger share of the blame was placed on conductor Chung Myung-whun for not having what it takes to bring out the best of this programme of nineteenth-century Austro-German music (Weber’s Die Freischutz overture, Schubert’s Unfinished and Brahms’No. 2).

I, on the other hand saw the “other” performance consisted of twentieth-century Hungarian music (Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra) sandwiching nineteenth-century German music (Mendelssohn’s violin concerto). Based on that evening’s performance, I can’t say that the Royal Concertgebouw is the world’s greatest. In fact, a musician friend of mine quipped, “well, the HKPO is not very far from that”. Having said that and even considering the price, I think the performance was not THAT bad, it was just not stunning.

Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta was well-balanced with Chung bringing out a persuasive performance from the orchestra with sensuous and sensitive playing from the principals of the wind section. Jacques Meertens on the clarinet was particularly effective, alluringly introducing the recurring main dance theme. If there is any indication of what actually happened the night before, it was to be found in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64. Despite a most competent performance from soloist Janine Jansen, the famous and regularly performed concerto didn’t really take flight. The ever-central timpani; and cello and bass lines that underpin the harmony were never seemed to be quite there with the solo line. It was a “respectable” performance but just not a compelling one.

Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra was the highlight of the evening; and if there is any hint of Concertgebouw being the world’s greatest, it is to be found in this piece. It is also in this piece that the presence of Chung was most felt. The interpretation was not without imagination. The progression from the dark and gloomy to the triumphant feel good mood was handled with well-judged dramatic manipulation that showed off the orchestra’s layered sound to glorious effect. There was nothing straight-forward about this performance. Chung was able to make sure that each melody, no matter how covered, achieved clarity; and most importantly, the finale ended with a big sweeping action to incite a rapturous applause.

No. 1? Not really. But definitely in the top 10.
Myung-whun Chung and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Feb. 14 2012
Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall

Zoltán Kodály:Dances of Galánta
Felix Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor, Op 64
Allegro molto appassionato
Allegretto non troppo – Allegro molto vivace
Violin, Janine Jansen
Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchesta
Introduzione: Andante non troppo – Allegro vivace
Giuoco delle coppie: Allegro scherzando
Elegia: Andante non troppo
Intermezzo interrotto: Allegretto
Finale: Pesante – Presto

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