Australian orchestras sometimes fall down when it comes to sharing the interstate love. When did Sir Andrew Davis last conduct outside of Melbourne? Or David Robertson get a gig in Brisbane? Asher Fisch, however, manages to buck the trend, having recently helmed the MSO, and now Sydneysiders have the chance to catch the man who’s credited with the transformation of the West Australia Symphony Orchestra into the finest German Romantic orchestra this side of – well, Germany – in signature works by Brahms and Richard Strauss.
Before opening up his Teutonic trinket chest, Fisch treated his audience to a taste of the new. The Israeli-born, US-domiciled composer Avner Dorman wrote After Brahms originally as a piano piece for Orli Shaham, wife of SSO Chief Conductor David Robertson – a neat connection. She’s recorded it on her brilliantly intriguing Brahms Inspired disc on Canary Classics (CC15) and will play it as part of her Sydney recital this July. The work is inspired by Johannes Brahms’ late piano works, playing around with the rhythmic and harmonic ideas inherent in these profound and much-loved pieces. After Brahms – Three Intermezzi for Orchestra, may be a beefier incarnation but the idea is the same.
The first Intermezzo gets off to a disconcerting start, as if two pieces have got underway at once, ideas emerging helter-skelter. Somewhat fleeting, it’s followed by a radiant mediation on ideas from Brahms’ Intermezzo Op. 119 No 1. It’s a lovely piece, kind of like imagining a Satie Gymnopedie waltzing gently on the dance floor with a pop song by Sibelius, until they’re tapped on the shoulder by Tubby the Tuba. The romantic third Intermezzo is a passionate Adagio with reflective strings pitted against busy woodwind, including a prominent pair of saxophones. Fisch lead the SSO in a tidy, disciplined performance that gave the music ample chance to speak for itself.
Bits of the real Brahms followed, a pair of his too-rarely performed choral songs – the sublime Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny) and the impassioned Gesang der Parzen (Song of the Fates). The former is Brahms at his most Elgarian and opened with a heart-stopping warmth, swelling fondly towards the entry of Sydney Philharmonia Choirs. Respecting the texts, Fisch gave full focus to his singers, accompanying the delicate vocal lines with great sensitivity. They, in turn, responded with some very graceful singing, diction and discipline both in evidence. The second half with its biting syncopations and echoes of Berlioz’s Requiem (which I can’t imagine Brahms knew?) led to a richly nuanced playout.
Fisch was equally strong in the grand opening of the second work, before the choral entry and the inexorable tread of the long march with its ominous timpani underpin. Pacing was spot on, the choir clean and precise over the lengthy span of the first section. Some nicely floated tenor lines (perilously high, I’d call it) distinguished the dramatically dismissive second part. Showy, these pieces are not. Sincere, profound, they most certainly are, and both deserve to be heard more regularly.
Richard Strauss’s final tone poem was the meaty second half of the concert, a work too often pooh-poohed as second rate, or non-cohesive. Perhaps in the wrong hands that might be true, but Asher Fisch clearly loves the work (as, cards on table, do I) and with the SSO on blistering form proceeded to show the nay-sayers a thing or two. The key strengths here were pacing and blend. First, this was a brisk, energetic traversal of Strauss’s musical mountain – more youngsters in trackie-daks than portly Bavarians in bulging lederhosen – and it paid off in spades. But Fisch is also a master of the joins, ensuring that 22 episodes never felt episodic. The orchestral mix, too, was well-nigh perfect, a tribute to both conductor and band, ensuring that every magic trick in Strauss’s sorcerer’s box drew its intended oohs and ahs.
The delights were far too many to mention every one, but on the way up I’d single out the Wagnerian opening with the mighty mountain slumbering Fafner-like in the lower brass. Also the majesty of the cymbal-crashing dawn, the great gloomy wallop of the entry into the wood and the skittering cascades of Strauss’s joyous waterfall. Fisch’s operatic experience paid dividends at turning this hike into a real drama, the impressionism of the brook and pasture with its lowing cattle complete with cowbells done just right. Woodwind revelled in birdsong, brass were magnificent all night – nine horns for goodness sake, four of them doubling Wagner tubas! Crafted conducting even gave the comical ‘getting lost’ section a musical logic and cohesion.
The arrival on the summit was big, bold and beautiful, Diana Doherty’s unexpected oboe solo a delight – but then there were knockout woodwind solos all night on cor anglais, clarinet and bassoon in particular, and how great the strings sounded when scaled down to sextet or octet proportions. Coming down the mountain, the wonderfully weird mists with muted trumpets and Wagner tubas were winningly done, and then the storm…? Strauss may be showing off just a bit, but what a blast it is with wind machine, screaming flutes and piccolos, pelting strings and a pair of timpanists going hell for leather. Less discipline and this can be a mess, but Fisch’s management of the music’s texture and inner detail was text book, only capped by the sublimity of his majestic sunset and the descent into night.
Fisch may be thought of in Australia as WASO’s secret weapon, but he’s also a go-to in this repertoire from New York to Vienna and his Strauss here bore favourable comparison with Kempe or Karajan. In short, if you’ve ever thought Eine Alpensinfonie is nothing more than flash and fluff, prepare to hear it elevated to the level of a Bruckner or Mahler symphony. Highly recommended.
The Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Songs & Vistas is at the Sydney Opera House until April 1