Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Liang at Hong Kong’s City Hall

Borromeo Quartet (Photo: Richard Bowditch) Borromeo Quartet (Photo: Richard Bowditch)

The first few weeks of January, falling as they do between the two New Years’, are culturally relatively quiet. The Hong Kong International Chamber Music Festival, now the Beare’s Premiere Music Festival, has long been one of the major events brightening this relatively uneventful period.

The Festival closed on 16 January with a concert whose finale was the evergreen crowd-pleaser Mendelssohn Octet. This was preceded by a, if not boisterous then at the very least robust, rendition of Beethoven’s 1806 String Quartet No 7 in F major, Op. 59, No. 1 by Boston’s Borromeo String Quartet. This is the first of three commissioned by Russian ambassador to Vienna, Andrey Razumovsky, and ends, probably not coincidentally, with an allegro Thème Russe.


The evening led off with a world premiere: a duet for percussion and violin by composer Lei Liang, which was entitled “déjà vu”. In an introduction to the piece, violinist (and Festival Artistic Director) Cho-Liang Lin, said it was originally written for pipa, and was rewritten for violin on his request. Modern and in striking contrast to the other two works of the evening, this piece commissioned by Festival organizer Premier Performances provided the opportunity for a virtuoso performance by percussionist Zhe Lin, who had to play on several different instruments.

The Borromeo quartet were joined by violinists Arnaud Sussmann and Aaron Boyd, violist Paul Neubauer and cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan for the 1825 Mendelssohn Octet in E-flat Major, written when the composer was just 16 as a present for his violin teacher. This performance was notable for including 100 bars of music that were in the original manuscript but not in the version published several years later. One would have to know the work extremely well to notice the additional music, but an excellent introduction led by Borromeo violinist Nicholas Kitchen allowed the audience to understand, as much as possible, what was later cut and how to recognize it. One should, as Kitchen notes, trust the composer’s judgement, but when a piece is as well-known as the Octet, it is fascinating to hear it in other versions.

Chamber music is not normally thought of as “rousing”, but it clearly can be. The eight musicians were called back by applause several times by an audience who might have hoping against hope for a reprise of the final presto.

Winters in Hong Kong aren’t particular cold (and less so than before); nor are they particularly dark. But a concert as joyous as this was nonetheless a welcome mid-January surprise. Fireworks over the Harbour may have been cancelled, but those inside City Hall went on.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.