Beethoven has lost his swagger but Brahms shines even brighter. Leon Levy reviews the West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s final mainstage concert for 2020.
‘The Emperor’, West Australian Symphony Orchestra ·
Perth Concert Hall, 28 November 2020 ·
The West Australian Symphony Orchestra has been at the forefront of bringing music to its followers during the pandemic, via the internet, and now in live performance. But there is no escaping the damage that has been inflicted, not least in this concert with the loss of both Principal Conductor Asher Fisch —a star in Perth if ever there was one— and the much-anticipated Russian/Australian piano soloist Konstantin Shamray.
However, the return of live music-making to the Concert Hall and the appearance of a young keyboard talent were surely cause for a celebratory atmosphere. And yet, whether because of the gravity of our times generally, or the uncertainty of older members of the audience as to the wisdom of being part of a large gathering, there was a certain heaviness in the air at the Saturday night concert that took time to dispel.
The 18-year old soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concert No 5, Shuan Hern Lee, has already amassed an impressive string of 1st prizes in international competitions, as well as performances with orchestras abroad. Confident and fluent playing was on immediate display in the arpeggio figures following the opening orchestral chord. Flawlessly clean fingerwork and finely executed trills and pianissimi were hallmarks of the performance. A perfectly weighted orchestral introduction to the second movement was matched by the limpid playing of the soloist whose rising trills led beautifully into the gently accompanied theme restatement. A highlight of the performance was the quiet anticipatory transition into the rondo final movement, the soloist then flying free like a bird released from its cage and yet not relaxing control in the dash to the concluding chords.
In sum this was an assured performance with a consistently supportive orchestra and a rapt audience. But there was a curiously subdued quality about it all, with the swagger absent in this of all works. Perhaps many in the audience and amongst the musicians have been chastened by these past months, and even a warhorse like the Emperor concerto is seen with a new perspective?
Be that as it may, something miraculous seemed to have occurred during interval and whereas Brahms’s 4th symphony can convey “droop” with its very first bar, on this occasion there was a dramatic grip throughout that seemed largely absent in the Beethoven. The opening statement, with its three distinct components, was eloquently enunciated and then worked through to good effect, doing justice to Brahms’s mastery; and similarly with the second movement, where all unfolded in a natural way. The allegro movement blazed with life and colour; and yet, within its vigorous progress, the graceful moments that the composer scripted were most beautifully realised. Again, in the finale, the orchestra moved with energy through the many variations of the Bach-inspired thematic material, each one given its due without impeding the thrust of the movement to its satisfying conclusion.
Asher Fisch and WASO have a special association with the Brahms symphonic canon and one has to wonder whether the spirit of the Principal Conductor hovered over this particular performance. The critic Hanslick, initially ambivalent about the Fourth Symphony, a year later went on to write that “it is like a dark well; the longer we look into it, the more brightly the stars shine back”. The appreciation of the audience for the fine work of Peter Moore and the band in reflecting that assessment was unmistakable.
Pictured top: Shuan Hern Lee performs with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. Photo supplied
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