Perth Concert Hall
June 22, 2018

Had one cast an eye across the program for WASO’s Asher Fisch Conducts Mahler 4, the eclectic programming immediately stood out. Keeping true to his desire to ‘break the overture, concerto, symphony thing,’ Fisch instead opted for a string orchestra arrangement of a single Schubert string quartet movement, a collection of reimagined folk songs, and one of Mahler’s smallest and shortest symphonies.  Whilst innovative and refreshing in concept, the program was bound together by a series of recurring themes running throughout the works, making it all the more rewarding in practice.

After taking his place on the podium to greet the audience, clutching a microphone rather than a baton, Fisch explained that each piece explored the relationship between the smallest and biggest musical forms; the art song and the symphony. The ‘Andante con Moto’ from Schubert’s Death and the Maiden varied a theme based on Schubert’s own 1817 lied of the same name. Similarly, the song Das himmlische Leben (The Heavenly Life) serves the basis for Mahler’s composition of his Fourth Symphony, subtly influencing each movement before appearing in full in the fourth movement. Meanwhile, Berio’s Folk Songs, functioning as both folk and art songs, interact with their symphonic surroundings in Berio’s 1973 orchestration of the original 1964 chamber setting. To illustrate this to the audience, Fisch and the mezzo-soprano soloist for the night, Stefanie Irányi, performed Schubert’s lied prior to the commencement of Death and the Maiden. This, along with Fisch’s commentary, served to enhance the audience’s familiarity with both background information and thematic material in a display that could have easily come across as condescending had it not been for Fisch’s warmth and genuine desire to connect with his audience.

Death and the Maiden may have been inspired by the idea of death – Schubert composed the work when he was gravely ill and reflecting on his own mortality – but the WASO strings were alive with colour and energy. Though producing an even, homogenous string tone, the ensemble deftly navigated every change in mood and dynamics Schubert threw at them, alternating between lush warmth, fiery anger, and crisp delicacy. Led superbly by WASO concertmaster Laurence Jackson, the WASO strings moved together as one unit, and the meaningful interaction between sections upheld the dialogue of the original string quartet. Each variation was treated with intelligence and sensitivity; in particular, the cellos created compelling lyrical lines in the second and fourth variations.

To sing Berio’s Folk Songs is to put one’s skills to the test, and involves singing across a variety of languages, against a harmonically complex backdrop, and conveying a multitude of moods and tales in the short space of twenty minutes. Stefanie Irányi, whom we briefly encountered earlier in the night, displayed a mastery of all these elements. A natural storyteller in her body language and facial expressions, Irányi seemed at ease with each folk song, from the modal Black is the colour to the virtuosic Ballo. However, Irányi wasn’t the sole soloist of the Folk Songs; the flute and viola solos permeating the work were performed with virtuosic flair and folky abandon. These Folk Songs made for a refreshing programming choice, and Irányi and WASO appeared to relish the opportunity to present them to the audience.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 is smaller than his other symphonies in terms of orchestration. With only triple woodwinds (except for the four flutes) and a brass section devoid of trombones or tuba, the orchestra makes for an un-Mahlerian stage presence. The same cannot be said for the music that WASO produced, and the efforts of the musicians on stage more than made up for the reduced orchestral forces. WASO took to Mahler 4 with agility and energy, collecting dutifully under Fisch’s baton as one organism, rather than as individual players. Throughout the symphony, the horn section was simply phenomenal, the spectacular low horn playing in the first and third movements making the audience forget the symphony’s lack of low brass. Laurence Jackson was appropriately spooky in his role as the devilish fiddler in the second movement, and the woodwinds were bursting with colour throughout the symphony. Irányi, in her third appearance for the night, took to the fourth movement with the same story-telling gusto as she did with the Folk Songs; her dark tone fit for singing of the animals sacrificed at the heavenly feast. WASO has achieved some of its finest music making under Fisch’s baton and with Mahler’s symphonic scores; their performance of Mahler 4 is no exception.

Intelligent and innovative programming, an engaging soloist and some outstanding ensemble work has led WASO to present an extremely compelling performance. I hope they adopt a similarly inspired approach to their future programming choices.