Live review: Asher Fisch conducts (West Australian Symphony Orchestra)

Asher Fisch

Incoming Principal plays a blinder, suggesting Perth may be the place to be in 2014.

By Clive Paget

Israeli-born Asher Fisch, the incoming Principal Conductor of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra announces his first program next week and if tonight’s concert is anything to go by, West Australians will be in for a treat over the next three years.

On the menu were three composers for whom Fisch has a weakness and a reputation: Wagner, Schumann and Brahms. All mainstream Germanic fare, but hearing it played this well reminds you both why this repertoire deserves its place at the musical high table and just how damned difficult it is to get right.

The Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde was the opener and kicked off with some lovely burnished string tone from cellos and violins. Apart from an early (and not repeated) oboe malfunction, this was generally playing of the first order.

Fisch is a deeply organic conductor – one of that rare breed through whom music seems to pour – a conduit for the composer’s thoughts. He’s magnetic on the podium, shapes every phrase to perfection and plays entirely from memory. His technique is clear as a bell and there’s an eagerness in the playing that suggests a keen affinity between maestro and orchestra. He’s no-nonsense as well, never lingering for too long, yet never rushed. Passionate, yet never sentimental.

The climax of the prelude was enormously satisfying. Fisch knew just how to pull back before urging his forces on to the summit. There were some exquisite woodwind solos too in the slow wind down and that warm cello sound again. The Liebestod itself was spellbinding in its intensity with a massive, beautifully controlled crescendo and lovingly shaded finished.

The Schumann Cello Concerto followed, the soloist the German cellist Alban Gerhardt, whose determination to get classical music out of the concert hall has seen him playing Bach for free around the Perth CBD this last week (see below). His recent discography makes clear that he is currently one of the world’s finest players and a moment on the platform is enough to reveal a true aristocrat of the cello. Never histrionic, Gerhardt nevertheless manages to convey the right degree of Romantic passion. His tone can be silvery and hushed (trusting implicitly in Fisch to keep the orchestra down), yet meaty enough when required.

The partnership here was everything as soloist and conductor worked as one to shape this most Brahmsian of concertos. With its unusual single movement structure the work seemed tailor made for two artists with a clear architectural plan, yet unafraid to come off message to illuminate the darker corners of Schumann’s subtle sound world.

Two special Alban Gerhardt moments followed. First was his encore – the second movement of Ligeti’s solo sonata – a sort of madcap, Hungarian, late 20th-century Flight of the Bumblebee for cello. Despite a couple of comedy moments, this fiendishly difficult showpiece was tossed off as if it were a walk in the park. And then, as we returned for the second half, there was Gerhardt again, tucked away at the back of the cello section, ready to join in with Brahms’ Third Symphony for the sheer pleasure of making music.

And what a Brahms symphony. Fisch gave the magisterial opening terrific weight before allowing things to subside into the elegant, almost conversational second subject. He again proved a superbly physical presence, giving shape and pace as he moved from section to section with great sensitivity. Balance and blend in Brahms is so important and conductor and orchestra had clearly worked hard to ensure such finely disciplined playing and such a textured sound. The woodwind and brass were particularly distinguished here.

The second movement by contrast was all nut-brown tone, an autumnal Andante with an irresistible ebb and flow. Fisch judged perfectly when, and how much passion he could inject into the central section. The third movement was graceful with just the right degree of rubato, and again, some lovely string tone, especially in the (Gerhardt enhanced) cello section. The finale was splendidly done, with Fisch coaxing every ounce of drama out of it, yet still producing swathes of smooth tone in the lyrical passages.

An outstanding concert, then, with orchestra on excellent form, inspired soloist and inspiring conductor. If Asher Fisch’s tenure with WASO is going to produce work of this calibre, I for one will be itching to get on a plane for Perth on a monthly basis.