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Reviews/Music

Fisch comes full circle

1 December 2019

Review: West Australian Symphony Orchestra, Verdi’s Requiem ⋅
Perth Concert Hall, 29 November ⋅
Review by Rosalind Appleby ⋅

Giuseppe Verdi is primarily a composer of operas, and Asher Fisch is primarily a conductor of operas, so it is no surprise that the West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Verdi’s Requiem had the intensity and emotion of a night at the opera. True, there were no elephants (Aida), hunchback clowns (Rigoletto) or Hebrew slaves (Nabucco). But there was a 150-strong choir (the WASO chorus supplemented by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra Chorus and the St George’s Cathedral Consort) and four high profile soloists joining the orchestra on stage, plus a capacity audience; the Concert Hall was bursting at the seams.

Verdi’s 1874 Requiem was premiered in a church, with a liturgy rather than an opera libretto. But it contains the drama and emotion of romantic opera and who better to bring this to life than Fisch, who has spent his six years at the helm of WASO schooling the orchestra in this sound world. It was full circle for the Israeli maestro, who conducted the Requiem in his debut with WASO in 1999 (then a protégé of Daniel Barenboim and yet to complete his now legendary first Ring Cycle in Adelaide in 2004).

As we have come to expect, Fisch brought Verdi’s dramatic architecture to life in all its majestic detail. From the haunting opening ‘Requiem’ whispered over misty string to the writhing storms of the ‘Libera me’, via moments of brass splendour recalling the Triumphal March from Aida and heart wrenchingly intimate vocal solos, each cameo reached its zenith. There were numerous exquisite moments from the orchestra as, under Fisch’s baton, the ensemble navigated tempo changes, eased fluidly in and out of phrases and breathed shimmering beauty into Verdi’s soundworld.

It’s a dark sound world, though; a work of fear and trembling rather than comfort and hope. Verdi exploits the period’s prevailing “judgement” theology with his inclusion of the Sequence. Its recurring ‘Dies irae’ (‘Day of wrath’) was sung explosively by the chorus and soloists and the orchestra was unleashed with Wagnerian lavishness. Four trumpets stationed in the upper gallery added to the immersive experience.

Soprano soloist Siobhan Stagg capped her year as WASO’s Artist in Residence with a compelling performance, her golden voice and delicately clear top end making every phrase a delight. Stefanie Irányi’s darker mezzo brought a penetrating intensity, tenor Paul O’Neill sang with gleaming ardour and Warwick Fyfe’s splendidly effortless baritone completed the quartet.

And now to the chorus, who in many ways were the highlight of the night. The 150-strong composite choir were remarkably unified, singing with a warm, cushioned sound that had the clean purity of an organ. For six years Fisch has honed a creamy, rounded orchestral sound built on German romantic repertoire: now he has found a choir to match his orchestra.

I am a huge lover of opera but I wonder if perhaps this was even better? As the great requiem composers recognise, sometimes the more profound experiences are those of the soul, not the spectacle. What a privilege to experience the increasingly refined beauty of our orchestra, chorus and world class soloists in immaculate acoustics, without distraction. One thing is sure; it bodes well for WASO’s much-anticipated concert performance of Fidelio in February.

Pictured top: Asher Fisch conducts the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. Photo Rebecca Mansell.

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She was co-managing editor and founding board member of Seesaw Magazine 2018 – 2023, is author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine (UK). She loves park percussion instruments.

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