Ill Wind Delivers the Goods

09.07.09
Asher Fisch
The West Australian

By Neville Cohn

Any audience disappointed over Sir Andrew Davis’ withdrawal from the WASO’s Master Series concerts at the weekend because of family illness was more than compensated by his replacement.

At his awesome best last year when he conducted the WASO and vocal soloists in a stunning account of Act 3 from Wagner’s Die Walkure, Asher Fisch’s lofty standards were shown again in a program devoted largely to the music of Richard Strauss. For most of the evening, a much expanded WASO was needed to meet Strauss’ requirements but in an extract from his opera Ariadne auf Nazos, it was whittled down to 15 strings, a couple of harps and a small brass and woodwind choir.

Here, soprano soloist Christine Brewer demonstrated the form that has taken this American-born musician to the peak of operatic celebrity. I cannot praise her artistry in Es gibt ein Reichtoo highly. Earlier, and to the accompaniment of a much bigger orchestra, we heard Strauss’ Four Last Songs. Strauss’ touching leave-taking of the world, this set of lieder was like a consecration of the evening with Brewer and the WASO drawing from deep wells of expressiveness to reveal the incomparably beautiful autumnal essence of these haunting songs.

Throughout, Fisch coaxed exquisite nuances from the orchestra as backing for Brewer’s vocal magic. It was an accompaniment fit for Brewer’s vocal magic. It was an accompaniment fit for royalty to which Brewer responded with queenly authority.

Principal horn David Evans worked wonders in the closing moments of September but wind chording at the close of Beim Schlafengehen was dubious. The concertmaster’s brief solos were notationally impeccable but too pale tonally.

Fisch came into his own in Straus’ gigantic, sprawling Also Sprach Zarathustra, an uneven work over which Fisch, conducting from memory, presided so convincingly that, for the duration of the performance, its less inspired episodes sounded better than they really are. It was a remarkable feat of musicianship.

Millions who might never have attended an orchestral performance in their lives are familiar with the opening moments of Zarathustra from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. And Fisch, with trademark unambiguously clear conducting style, took the WASO to the heights. Laurels specially to the gentlemen of the lower brass, the woodwinds as well as percussionists Tim White and Alex Timcke, all of whom seemed to relish their crucial role in this massive opus. Annette Goerke, too, was at her authoritative best at the console of the Concert Hall organ.

Anne Henderson, bassoonist in the WASO for more than 30 years, many of them as distinguished principal player, retires from the orchestra after performances at the weekend. Concertgoers over the decades will remember her sterling contribution with affection and gratitude.