★★★★½ Fisch’s first Mahler Two is more than worth the wait.

Perth Concert Hall, Perth
April 1, 2016

Let’s get the negative stuff out of the way first. Don’t worry: it has nothing to do with the performance, which was sublime in every respect. It has more to do with the admittance of latecomers during the (in this case very short) break between the symphony’s first movement and the rest of the work.

Ideally, a lockout policy should have been implemented. Failing that, tardy patrons should quickly have been shown to the most convenient seats available at the ends of aisles (there weren’t many to be sure, but enough) and not forced to take their correct mid-row seats by officious ushers. The spectacle I witnessed right in front of me, which took place after the symphony had already resumed, was highly disruptive and totally avoidable (I note from his review of this concert that my colleague at The West Australian, Neville Cohn, is in complete agreement with me).

Anyway, now that I’ve got that off my chest one could say it’s hard to believe this was WASO Principal Conductor Asher Fisch’s first Mahler Two. Not only that, he conduct it from memory; his mastery of both the work’s massive architecture and its often exquisite minutiae was nothing short of miraculous.

But should anyone have been surprised? Fisch is, after all, a highly acclaimed exponent of (especially Germanic) Romantic orchestral repertoire, especially of the music of those two composers Mahler is here most indebted to: Beethoven and Wagner. This was, in fact, a Mahler Two we had every right to expect from him (especially given that he gave a terrific Mahler One just last November).

In the Allegro maestoso, the entry of the lower strings had all the ferocity Mahler calls for in the score, as did those mighty tutti climaxes. But this astonishing movement, originally conceived as a funereal tone poem, also asks from conductor and (very big) orchestra playing of the greatest clarity and subtlety – again, which Fisch and WASO delivered with a glowing intensity that actually never flagged throughout the entire 80-minute performance.  

And if the Ländler of the Andante moderato was all rustic refinement (if that’s not a contradiction in terms!), the following Scherzo felt like sardonically laid-out parterres of razor-sharp thickets. More fitting as an entryway in to Hell rather than to the relative sanctuary of the famous Urlicht (Primordial Light) from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, which West Australian-based mezzo Fiona Campbell clothed in magnificent Autumnal hues.

And the Finale, as much a visual as an aural feast? Not only did the combined forces of the WASO Chorus and UWA Symphonic Chorus sing with breathtaking dignity and forceful sonority; Campbell and the terrific young soprano Kiandra Howarth glistened as diamonds amongst the sometimes rocky, sometimes gently undulating orchestral landscape so profoundly realized by Fisch and a superbly on form WASO. Do we really have to wait until November to hear Fisch’s and WASO’s Bruckner Nine?