Cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras is no stranger to Hong Kong audiences, having collaborated with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta back in 2017, also for the Le French May Arts Festival. The Canadian-born Frenchman is known for his boldness in programming, often presenting both the timely and the timeless in a single offering. The convergence of these two worlds was illustrated two nights ago when he pitted solo contemporary works with three of the complete Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, and tonight that duality continued with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, as he favoured the well-known Tchaikovsky Variations on a Rococo Theme together with the Asian première of Tristan Murail’s De Pays et d’Hommes Étranges (2019).

Jean-Guihen Queyras © Marco Borggreve

Jean-Guihen Queyras
© Marco Borggreve

Queyras is a master of his craft. He exuded carefully constructed nuance from each gesture and fashioned microcosms of sound into broader statements of significance. The Murail was the perfect platform for Queyras to explore these gifts, as it offered a diverse palette of colours and a mosaic of motivic ideas. The work treats the cello as storyteller, leading the unfolding of ideas in which the orchestra reacts in a variety of ways. Structurally a difficult work to comprehend, conductor Christoph Poppen worked in tandem with Queyras, allowing the soloist to weave his tale and the orchestra to provide the necessary support, comment and, at times, agitated disagreement. De Pays could be described as a kaleidoscopic exploration into sound, colour and interplay.

The Tchaikovsky was unequivocally the highlight of the evening. Queyras presented the important opening theme almost matter-of-factly, which demonstrated his command of the instrument and his understanding of the music. The most inwardly contemplative passages were executed with masterly precision and the necessary projection, and the more technically challenging material was never flamboyant or staged. There were a number of memorable moments, which included the beautifully constructed dialogue between orchestra and soloist in Variation IV, and the poignancy offered at the close of the cadenza that transitions into Variation VI. Here Queyras played with a level of delicacy that was palpable: he has the ability to bounce between the whimsical and the profound, always with the deepest commitment.

Probably as expected, Bach was selected for his encore: the opening Prelude from the Cello suite no. 1. This provided further evidence that Queyras was not only at one with the music, but with his instrument. He brought an almost meditative quality to the playing, such that his cello was not merely an extension of him, but that music, man and mechanism were united in their endeavours.

The remainder of the programme was bookended by Mozart. The success of the overture to La Clemenza di Tito depends upon the orchestra to deliver subtle degree of variation, as on the surface this appears to be a standard sonata-form movement with traditional modulations and idiomatic writing. Under the direction of Poppen, the Sinfonietta displayed nice clarity in the softer sections and brighter tones in the more emphatic statements. There were lengthy pauses between the opening chords, but these were curtailed in the return. Other interpretative decisions were more successful and this overture provided a solid start to the evening.

From a similar period as the opera, Mozart’s second to last symphony ended the evening in the turbulent key of G minor. A rare key for his symphonic writing, this tonality has often been associated with sadness and tragedy for the Austrian. The work contains bold statements of solemnity and the most expressive representations of despair.

Poppen’s approach to the symphony was somewhat pedestrian, opting for a more reserved interpretation. Even the famous opening gesture was delivered with little contour and the dynamic palette presented throughout was restrictive. In general, the orchestra lacked bite and the sound was not always homogenous. The tempo too lacked consistency, fluctuating with noticeable effect particularly in the second movement. Poppen’s gestures were more indicative of musical matters, but what the orchestra needed at times was a clear and decisive pulse. The last movement’s Allegro Assai is suggestive of fiery and technically dazzling material, but here the preferred approach was still for restraint and moderation. This was a disappointing end to an otherwise very polished programme.