Perth Concert Hall
December 1, 2017

Asher Fisch has been making a habit of giving a brief introduction to his concerts using the West Australian Symphony Orchestra to illustrate his ideas. WASO’s chief conductor has an easy manner and his insights make the listening experience much richer. Who knows if the education is building the audience of the future but it certainly makes the audience in the present more deeply connected to the journey unfolding on stage.

Asher Fisch with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. Photograph © Emma Van Dordrecht

It makes a difference to have Israeli composer Avner Dorman, relatively unknown to Perth audiences, introduced as Fisch’s “friend” and to hear examples of how Dorman’s After Brahms: Three Intermezzi for Orchestra appropriates Brahms’ piano works. Fisch played Brahms’ A Minor Intermezzo Op 118, No 1 on piano and explained how Dorman orchestrated the work by setting the arpeggios for low strings and fracturing Brahms’ melody to create a rhythmic hemiola. Armed with this knowledge the discordant first movement of After Brahms came alive with a dense energy reminiscent of Brahms’ orchestral writing.

According to Fisch the sadness in Brahms’ late works is linked to his nostalgia for a past musical era. The second movement of After Brahms teased out Brahms’ tendency to displace rhythm – each bar was one beat longer or shorter than its predecessor. But it also ached with a Brahmsian melancholy, with drooping thirds (recalling Brahms’ Op 119, No 1), a brass chorale and throbbing string climax.

The third movement was beautifully poignant, evoking the intimacy of Brahms with long descending lines and an inner lyricism. The sweet sound of saxophones contrasted with the (almost) Wagnerian grumbling of low strings and brass.

The intimacy continued with the WASO chorus joining the orchestra for a performance of Brahms’ choral ballad Shicksalslied. The choir sang Brahms’ plainchant-inflected choral writing and rich harmonisation with hushed tenderness. The second section with its rushing quavers and swamping timpani was a tumultuous contrast.

Unfortunately, Gesang der Parzen was impacted by patchy singing from the choir. There was impressive breath control during Brahms’ long phrases and resonant singing by the men but the delivery of Goethe’s poetry was rushed and the tenors and sopranos were under pitch on the high notes. The final stanza was appropriately eerie with its ghostly piccolo and ear-bending harmonic sidestepping via a cycle of thirds. When the tonality finally resolved, Fisch took the liberty of stretching the perfectly balanced D minor chord for am extended, grounding conclusion.

Strauss’ Die Heldenleben after interval felt much more settled, the orchestra emancipated from the choir and attuned to their chief conductor. Fisch swept through Der Held at a fast, sunny pace, assisted by an eight-piece horn section who established from the outset a bright and bold energy. The squalling woodwind and tubas made nice work of the music critics in Des Helden Widersacher and concertmaster Laurence Jackson’s impassioned solo in Des Helden Gefährtin was spell binding. Fisch spun voluptuous phrases from the orchestra with tenderly placed endings, but even under his attention the bombast of Des Helden Walstatt felt overly long. Fortunately the horns redeemed Strauss’ verbose final three movements, nailing the high calls and contributing lush organ-like chorales.  The orchestra en masse were in top form. Highlights include the pin-sharp accuracy of the offstage trumpets, the delicacy of the wind solos, the weighty warmth of the low strings and brass and the glowing string sound.

This was a well-shaped programme with pieces that spoke to each other across the centuries. WASO are right to assume their audience wants to go deeper and the carefully-framed inclusion of Dorman’s contemporary work with Fisch’s insightful commentary is what set this concert apart.