Mahler Six. Where to begin… Surely one of the Austrian master’s grandest creations, it can feel unrelenting at times – certainly within its outer movements and scherzo – yet listen closely and it’s full of signs of an experimental brain at work in terms of structural dynamics, and its use of tuned percussion and celesta is unique in Mahler’s output. Asher Fisch is a bold Mahlerian, as thoughtful and restless on the podium as Mahler himself must have been. But more of that later.
Mahler Six is such a meaty dish it can often be served solus, and you might think it a brave musician who would hope that, after such a behemoth, her Mozart would be remembered at evening’s end. No problem however for Japanese-American violinist Karen Gomyo who, thanks to some superlatively senstive orchestral accompaniment, delivered an exceptionally charming and detailed performance of the Third Violin Concerto.
Fisch’s approach to Mozart is all about balance, elegance and upswing – the way he makes it sparkle and dance. Forming a visible and clearly supportive lynchpin between soloist and orchestra, his attention to dynamics and support allowed Gomyo to execute some ravishingly daring piano passages without ever sinking beneath the orchestral waters. For her part, Gomyo is an ideal Mozartian, her silvery tone imbued with an effortless Viennese classicism, her platform manner bright as a midsummer’s day, perfect for this sunny G Major masterpiece.
Her opening Allegro – and especially her subtly pointed cadenza – was utterly infectious, her Adagio, one of Mozart’s melodic miracles spun out over plucked cello and bass, soared aloft, each phrase faultlessly shaped. With Fisch embracing the spirit of the dance – pushing an accent here, pulling back to help his soloist there – the Rondeau finale was sprightly and spirited with the magical episode over pizzicato strings especially beautiful. World-class playing all round – in short, perfection.
Returning for the Mahler, an upscaled WASO packed tightly behind him, Fisch took to the microphone to announce an experiment. The thorny question of which order to play the Scherzo and Andante – Mahler famously changed his mind at least once – had been uppermost in Fisch’s mind, and paying tribute to an idea of Hungarian maestro Iván Fischer, he announced his intention to try out the different combinations over his two Perth concerts. Tonight we would get Mahler’s second thoughts, with the Andante following the opening movement and the Scherzo coming third.
Fisch took the tread of the grim opening march smartish, but not too brutal, a nicely calculated approach that allowed the neatly highlighted snarling brass interjections to sow their seeds of doubt to greater effect. The brass, I should say from the start, were superb all night, tuba and trombones brooding and Fafner-like, complemented by near flawless braying horns and a laser-beam first trumpet.
In what could be described as a Freudian reading, the ‘Alma’ theme was initially snatched, almost desperate, but developed on each reoccurrence into something more passionate and satisfying – indeed, by the end it felt almost post-coital. And whereas you tend to think of the louds in Mahler Six, it was the quiet interludes where Fisch explored some of the composer’s more intriguing instrumental combinations that lingered longest – the offstage cowbell and celesta episode over low brass surely prefigures Korngold’s cinematic sound of the 1930s. The return of the march saw Fisch upping the grotesqueries as Mahler’s hero turns to face an increasing sense of doom, the meandering final minutes highlighting some ineffable quest for a new direction.
Coming second feels immediately right for the Andante, Mahler’s most beautiful slow movement (unfairly eclipsed IMHO by the after effects of Death in Venice). It rightly formed the true beating heart of this reading and WASO was at its very finest here, strings warm and golden of hue. Wind solos – especially the melancholy cor anglais – were winningly executed, Fisch pacing it all with a keen sense of the organic, but also an exactness that allowing magical moments, whether glittering harps or haunting horns, to poke their heads up out of the flow of Mahler’s endlessly inventive musical river. Despite a slightly odd onstage cowbell sound – offstage sounded more authentic – playing of such distinction meant that, for all its length, this movement could have happily gone on forever.
Fisch mined the Scherzo for all its gallows humour, the skeletal caperings of the xylophone and the death rattle of the tuba surely putting paid to Alma Mahler’s silly claims that the music represented their children at play. Emerging as a worthy predecessor to the Nachtmusik movements of the Seventh, this was all ghoulies and ghosties and things that go bump in the night. Bristling with energy, if we were in a nursery it was one stalked by a nightmare nanny inclined to shut her crying charges promptly in the cellar!
By the arrival of the Scherzo, I for one was convinced that the Andante coming second was the right answer, and yet with the thump of the finale, I was uncertain again, the arrival of the long last movement seeming to come as a more effective shock after the calm-before-the-storm fade out of the slow movement. Fisch surrounded the opening theme with a spacious halo before the percussion crashed in and we were off on Mahler’s longest and most unrelenting emotional rollercoaster.
Despite its length, the orchestra remained keenly focused to depict a landscape peopled with warped tubas, twangling harps and the occasional rasp of contrabassoon – in short, not a very nice place to spend half an hour in. On the whole, Fisch managed it all with aplomb, building climax after climax only to be shattered by the hammer blows of fate – by the way, Fisch is a two hammer blows man. On that note, WASO presented two separate hammers, the second even larger and more wicked looking than the first, though frustratingly the timing of neither blow was quite exact enough, possibly owing to the tricky logistics of lift and backswing. The final splintering crash, however, was spot on, crowning an appropriately epic survey of this most complex of symphonies. Mahler Eight next?
WASO repeats the concert on Saturday August 25 at 7:30pm