There are some guest conductors who come in and immediately imbue an orchestra with their own unique personality and sound. Israeli conductor Asher Fisch is one such beast, the Principal Conductor of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra bringing a dark, almost raw, intensity to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in the first of three performances – all, unusually, at matinee times – of a program titled Scottish Fantasy, before he opens WASO’s Masters Series in Perth next weekend.

Asher Fisch, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Scottish FantasyAsher Fisch. Photo © Sara Hannagan

Don’t let the title fool you, however – with works by Strauss, Bruch and Mendelssohn featured, this program is very much a Germanic take on Scotland. But Fisch is in his element in the German repertoire, the conductor’s recent triumphs including Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde last year and a highly acclaimed Brahms symphony cycle before that. He conducted the SSO two years ago in Richard Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie, and it was to Strauss that he returned in this program, opening the concert with the composer’s early tone poem Macbeth.

Strauss’s 1887 orchestral treatment of the Scottish play was his first ‘official’ tone pome, though it wasn’t premiered until after Tod und Verklärung and Don Juan – and it was later revised – yet it already demonstrates the composer’s penchant for rich colouration and the kind of psychological insight he would bring to operas like Salome, focusing on the two characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

With a red-blooded string sound and muscular energy, Fisch demonstrated his ability to draw out the larger-scale narratives in a work, deftly pacing long crescendos and wielding dramatic cut-offs with momentous gravity. There was a delicious uneasiness to the winds in the ‘Lady Macbeth’ music and Fisch drew a crackling heat from the brass section, and indeed, the whole orchestra. While there is danger in such intensity (a horn burst into flames, a bass clarinet entry smoked precariously) the result was a thrilling reading, punctuated by hammer-stroke bass drum and the final distant snare drum of an approaching army.

The Grave funeral march opening of Max Bruch’s 1879 Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra seemed to draw a thread directly from the Strauss, the captivating sound of Chinese violinist Tianwa Yang’s instrument emerging from a mist of strings. Yang’s tone is luminous and penetrating, with a darker vein running through it, and she carried the work’s opening melancholy into the folky double-stopped passages that followed. Yang rose to fame in the year 2000 when she became the youngest artist, at the age of 13, to record Paganini’s 24 fiendish Caprices, and time certainly has only sharpened her technique. Over the bagpipe drone of the strings she dispatched Bruch’s pyrotechnics with polish and flair, duetting brightly with Joshua Batty’s flute, but it was the complex flavour she brought to the simpler folk melodies that stood out. Harpist Louise Johnson was practically a second soloist, the two musicians finding a deft musical camaraderie. Yang brought fiery virtuosity to the work’s finale, shimmering on a final high note before descending into an earthy low register before the Concerto’s ultimate flourish.

Mendelssohn wrote his Third Symphony off the back of his Grand Tour of Europe, begun in 1929, that saw him pen his Hebrides Overture and Italian Symphony. While Mendelssohn sketched some 16 bars after a twilight visit to the Palace of Holyrood, his Scottish Symphony isn’t, like the other two works, explicit in its imagery. Fisch, however, vividly brought out the pictorial elements in Mendelssohn’s score, from the fog-shrouded moors of the opening to stormy gusts from the string section that make it impossible to believe the composer had no program in mind. There was an exquisite sting to the violins’ first entry, led by guest Concertmaster Natalie Chee – the Australian violinist on loan from the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra – and another guest, the Danish National Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Clarinet Olli Leppäniemi brought a brilliant sheen to his bright solo lines, and his duet with SSO bassoonist Todd Gibson-Cornish was a haunting moment before Fish ushered in the majestic finale.

Scottish Fantasy was a cleverly crafted and vividly realised program, Fisch proving himself yet again a master of musical story-telling.

Asher Fisch conducts the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Scottish Fantasy at the Sydney Opera House until March 9