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Tarmo Peltokoski draws precise Prokofiev, mixed Mahler from Hong Kong Philharmonic


At the very least, the late start helped compensate for the imbalance in the programme, the first part of which consisted solely of a 30-minute piano concerto; an hour-long symphony followed after the intermission.

Conductor Tarmo Peltokoski and Seong-Jin Cho, soloist in a performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Hong Kong Philharmonic, receive the applause of the audience on July 5. Photo: Desmond Chan/HK Phil
The Russian flavour of Peltokoski’s debut with the Philharmonic in June 2023, in which he paired Tchaikovsky with Shostakovich, was echoed in the evening’s first work, Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with Seong-Jin Cho as soloist. Conductor and pianist established an easy rapport as they brought to life a work that mixes old-school Russian romanticism (particularly in the solo piano part) and modernist sonorities.
Conductor Tarmo Peltokoski, music director designate of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, hugs pianist Seong-Jin Cho after their performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 on July 5. Photo: Keith Hiro/HK Phil

From the beginning, Peltokoski guided the orchestra through the score’s complex textures with unerring and understated control, the haunting transparency in the strings finding a cool, crisp echo in the winds. The same control was evident in passages where the work’s emotional intensity swells – marked in part by growling outbursts from the brass.

Cho’s graceful playing captured the collision of the 19th and 20th centuries embodied in the piano part (Prokofiev composed the piece five years before Russia’s 1917 revolution, reconstructing and revising it heavily afterwards), which dominates to the extent that much of the time the orchestra is relegated to Hollywood-like underscoring.

Cho and Peltokoski’s ability to weave the former’s playing smoothly back into the fabric of the orchestra’s showed musical teamwork of the highest order. This was evident too when Peltokoski joined Cho on the bench for a duet encore of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5, a performance not as carefully wrought as the Prokofiev but conveying the same crowd-pleasing intensity.

Pianist Seong-Jin Cho (foreground) and conductor Tarmo Peltokoski perform Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5 as an encore after Cho and the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 2. Photo: Keith Hiro/HK Phil

Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 after the intermission brought a wholly different sound world, and with it a notably different approach from the podium. Peltokoski allowed space for the solos emerging from the orchestra’s ranks to create moments of intimacy.

Right from Nitiphum Bamrungbanthum’s opening trumpet line to Lin Jiang’s equally confident horn solo, which essentially moderated a round table of wind players who led the transition from the serenity of the Adagietto to the more raucous Finale, personality in the playing never came at the expense of tonal clarity.

The music’s more extroverted moments, though, were where the discipline and control that defined Peltokoski’s Prokofiev began to unravel. This was not a matter of rhythm; he enjoyed taking his time in certain moments, although the pacing never meandered. Rather, there was a lack of balance between sections of the orchestra.

Mahler’s rhythms may often be inspired by Austrian dance forms, but Friday night’s performance went a bit too far in evoking village bands, employing volume (particularly in the brass) that took its toll on tuning.

Conductor Tarmo Peltokoski was more animated on the podium conducting Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 than he had been in Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Photo: Keith Hiro/HK Phil

Peltokoski’s demeanour on the podium changed entirely from the restraint of the Prokofiev; he became effusively animated in Mahler, his gestures making it look at times as if he were waving an aeroplane in to land, at other times as if he were preparing for take-off himself.

While distracting, they were in the service of the music. At times, his approach seemed a conscious rejoinder to other conductors whose primary focus is on polishing the sound and who, in so doing, turn Mahler’s works into nothing more than a series of orchestral effects. For Peltokoski, every musical line had a clear purpose.

If nothing else, the whoops from the audience – and the long queue afterwards for the autographs of Peltokoski and Cho – showed that the extended cheers after Jaap van Zweden’s final performances as music director a week earlier were not an anomaly. The Hong Kong Philharmonic has not seen this much excitement in some time.

“Season Finale: Tarmo Peltokoski & Seong-Jin Cho”, Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall. Reviewed: July 5.



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