Those of us fortunate enough to have heard conductor Asher Fisch, violinist Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra performing Elgar’s Violin Concerto only a couple of weeks ago had been looking forward to seeing them on stage again in different guises. We were not disappointed.
Here was WASO’s principal conductor in the role of soloist, in Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor (1845). And here was Danish virtuoso Szeps-Znaider in the role of conductor, not only for the Schumann but for Mendelssohn’s Overture (1839) to Victor Hugo’s play Ruy Blas and Richard Strauss’s tone poems Don Juan (1888) and Death and Transfiguration (1889).
That Fisch should prove as accomplished a pianist as Szeps-Znaider is a conductor is unsurprising. These are highly cultivated artists possessed of a rich, deep and broad musicianship. Which quality shone through in abundance in this Friday night concert.
The idea of the symphonic poem, of depicting theme, character, plot and/or atmosphere in purely musical terms, could easily have served as the home key for this marvellous concert, such was the thrilling narrative momentum of the performances. Despite Mendelssohn practically ignoring the melodramatic plot of Ruy Blas, its storytelling force was, in this performance, palpable, the contrasts between the portentous chorale-like material first intoned by the brass and the scurrying strings and lyrical woodwinds hugely exciting.
This set the stage for a true meeting of minds in Schumann’s Piano Concerto, written for his beloved Clara as a vehicle for her own musical artistry as much as for her virtuosity. Conversations abound in the subtle interplay between the piano and the orchestra. These were relished by pianist, orchestra and conductor alike. But it was in the first movement cadenza that we were most able to savour Fisch’s marvellous pianism, his playing – as it was said of Clara’s – at once analytical and lyrical.
Following the interval, Szeps-Znaider and WASO returned with Strauss’s early tone poems Don Juan and Death and Transfiguration. Early – but lacking neither in innovation, imagination nor mastery of the entire orchestral palette. In the first, frenzied arrogance and tender gorgeousness gyrated their way to the inevitable denouement, punctuated by exquisitely played solos. These latter were also a feature of Death and Transfiguration, which clothes with variegated raiment a more noble demise than lascivious Don’s. Szeps-Znaider elicited from WASO a performance of such overwhelming power as to wake the dead.
One final thing: it was terrific to see (and hear) Szeps-Znaider choosing an orchestral layout with antiphonal violins and basses to his left. It doesn’t make sense for all music, but was perfect for this repertoire, clarifying and expanding the sound image which in the Strauss was especially effective.