It would be nice to say that the Hong Kong audience got it wrong; that their tumultuous applause for Sol Gabetta’s performance of the Dvořák Cello Concerto with the HKPO was misplaced and should, instead, have been reserved for the orchestra’s magnificent account of Shostakovich’s 15th Symphony. But you can’t argue with an audience so bowled over by the young Argentinean’s playing that, what with the row in the middle of the auditorium waving their arms ever higher in the hope that Ms Gabetta might notice the enthusiasm with which they were applauding and the row behind them deciding to stand up to attract attention in their direction, we had the nearest thing I’ve ever seen in a concert hall to a Mexican Wave.
There were certainly a few good moments. The second movement ended magically and there was some deliciously subtle interplay between winds and soloist in the finale. But the whole thing was decidedly rough around the edges, not helped, it must be said, by a peculiar acoustic blind spot on the Cultural Centre stage which put the soloist and concertmaster in their own little sound capsule, and making for a disconcerting projection into the stalls. Obviously something was wrong with the positioning of the baffle board above the stage and, hopefully, somebody will not let that happen again.
After her long and obviously uncomfortable wait for the cello entry in the first movement, Gabetta tackled it with a violence and aggression which, if not wholly inappropriate musically, caused her to make some very ugly and ragged sounds on her instrument. Dmitri Jurowski clipped the rhythms and cut up the lines to such an extent that Dvořák was given an almost Baroque twist, and this certainly did nothing to help the soloist draw any lyricism from the music. But she always looked and sounded uncomfortable, and more than once (not least in those awesome double stopped scales in the first movement) one suspected that she was not easily meeting the technical challenges Dvořák had set before her. As Dvořák Cello Concertos go, this was notable mostly for its unease of delivery.
Born in Moscow and brought up after the demise of the Soviet Union, Dmitri Jurowski is one of those Russian conductors who can relish his heritage without embarrassment, and his reading of Shostakovich’s final symphonic utterance was an exceptional example of looking beyond the political message (who can doubt that the ironic juxtaposition of the Wagner “Fate” motiv and the banal March from the “Leningrad” Symphony, a work unashamedly celebrating the glorious Soviet army, was Shostakovich’s not-so-subtle commentary on the degradation of the Soviet state?) and placing it firmly in the tradition of great Russian symphonies.
The first movement was immaculate: Crisp, precise, rhythmically driven and almost blindingly logical. The second movement was immense in its sense of tragedy and horror, the ghastly (in the nicest sense of the word) trombone dead march given a wonderfully hollow ring by Jarod Vermette, showing an exceptional level of empathy with Jurowski’s interpretation, and the great climax utterly shattering. And the third movement’s bitter playfulness splendidly introduced by the bassoons drawing a more powerful link than I think I’ve ever heard before, on the closing bars of the second.
If by the fourth movement the orchestra was beginning to tire, ensemble cracking and concentration sagging, that was only because the white heat intensity of the first three movements had never once been allowed to relax. For the first time since I heard the Symphony’s London première in 1972, I began to find the last movement over-long; and so did the audience. And while it ended, as it always should, with a delightful cascade of glittering percussion effects, there was a sense that what had begun so brilliantly had lost some of its lustre.
However, once Jurowski got the principal double bass – George Lomdaridze - on to his feet (he had worked tremendously hard and added some outstanding moments to the performance), the audience – at least, those who had survived the usual disgraceful Hong Kong mass exodus even as the final bars are still fading away – forgot the dreariness of the finale and were almost back on Gabetta mode; cheering, raising their hands and edging once more towards that elusive spectacle, the Mexican Wave.