★★★★★ One of the most profoundly thrilling and beautiful musical experiences of this reviewer’s life.

Perth Concert Hall
August 28, 2015

My friend and colleague Neville Cohn, music critic for The West Australian, emailed me this morning to say, “In more than three decades of listening to the WASO, last night’s performance was surely one of the most memorable – and for the very best of reasons.” I would go one further and say that listening to Saturday night’s performances of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No 2 in B flat, Op. 83 and Symphony No 4 in E minor, Op. 98 by pianist Garrick Ohlsson, the West Australian Symphony Orchestra and Principal Conductor Asher Fisch was one of the most profoundly thrilling and beautiful musical experiences of my life. And I have no doubt many others privileged enough to have been among the capacity audience would agree.

Where to begin? Why not with neither of those two magnificent works but with pianist Garrick Ohlsson’s encore? Ohlsson became, in 1970, the first American to win first prize in the International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition, and his reputation is in part built on his highly individual yet thoroughly idiomatic interpretations of that composer’s music. His performance of Chopin’s Waltz in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 64 No 2 was thus nothing short of transcendent, finding a world of variety of tone, articulation and tempo within a relatively modest frame.

Brahms’ four-movement piano concerto, first performed in 1881, is of course a canvas stretched between a much, much larger frame. So naturally those same qualities dominated Ohlsson’s rhapsodic, magisterial playing here, coupled with a huge dynamic palette ranging from triple forte to a near-inaudible, bell-like pianissimo. Not that other soloists – chief among them horn principal David Evans in the opening Allegro non troppo and cello principal Rod McGrath in the spacious Andante – weren’t given ample opportunities to, as Jane Austen might say, exhibit. 

But the essential dialectic between piano and orchestra as melodic and rhythmic motifs were developed, atomised or plain fought over was the main show. And again, as in the previous concerts in the series, it was the phenomenal string playing which stood out, under Fisch’s baton and new concertmaster Laurence Jackson’s bow so unified, so disciplined and yet glowing with a warm, variegated timbre that is fast becoming truly distinctive.

If the Second Concerto’s final Allegretto grazioso is Brahms at his most insouciant and sunny, the Fourth Symphony’s final Allegro energico e passionato, a darkly dramatic passacaglia, is Brahms at his most melancholy and overcast. Not that the path to reach it is any less moody; though Fisch, as always, took the long view, allowing the Allegro non troppo’s drama to unfold at its own pace towards a riveting development section. The Andante moderato was a wonder in itself, the balance between the winds and pizzicato strings especially so imaginatively visualised and perfectly realised that in such a rarefied atmosphere one became as Tennyson’s lotus-eaters, “with half-shut eyes ever to seem/Falling asleep in a half-dream”. 

The rude awakening came not in the galloping Allegro giocoso but with the trombones announcing the sombre, funereal theme of the final movement’s passacaglia. Among the 30 or so following short variations there is so much variety of treatment, not least in orchestration, that one could fill a book; ditto with Fisch’s cohesively wintry yet rigorously informed imaginings, which lent this performance such enormous depth and vitality. Perhaps the move from the twelfth variation’s plaintive flute solo, ravishingly performed by that very embodiment of Pan himself, Andrew Nicholson, through the mellifluous Variation 13 discussion between clarinet, oboe and flute to the radiant major-key trombone chorale in variations 14 and 15, suffices as an example of the fast-evolving technical and artistic mastery of this incredible orchestra and its inspired principal conductor. No surprise that the audience wouldn’t let them go until they were treated to a rousing encore in the form of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No 5 in F- Sharp Minor.