Classical music, Music, News, Opera, Reviews

Designed to delight

Review: ‘Wagner’s World”, Asher Fisch presenting and conducting West Australian Symphony Orchestra –
Perth Concert Hall, 9 September –
Review by Leon Levy –

An inspiration: Asher Fisch in action. Photo: Emma van Dordrecht.

If Wednesday’s introduction by Asher Fisch and WASO to Wagner’s roots was a substantial and satisfying entrée, Saturday night’s concluding episode, “Wagner’s World”, could be said to represent a gourmet main course designed both to delight and educate.

The evening began, once again, with conductor Asher Fisch addressing the audience and posing an intriguing question: when Liszt visited Wagner for six weeks in 1856, what did the two get up to during that not inconsiderable time? Perhaps, suggested Fisch, they conspired the murder of tonality, for Wagner thereupon interrupted his work on the Ring Cycle to focus on the composition of Tristan und Isolde. Having previously dispensed with traditional forms but spared recognisable tonality, Tristan opens with an immediate statement of ambiguous tonality, as helpfully illustrated by Fisch in a “pre- and post-” comparison on the piano, followed by the orchestra in the Prelude to the opera.

Whereas Wagner’s next opera, Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg would have been expected to progress the harmonic adventure, rather shockingly it was revealed to be completely tonal. That, however, was reflective of its story but, as once again illustrated at the piano in a chord sequence from von Stolzing’s music, rules of harmonic progression were broken in a way that clearly anticipated jazz! And then, with Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal and the “Good Friday Spell”, where the magic of the day is evoked by comparatively few instruments, we could be listening to yet another composer.

The integration of music and drama is central to Wagner’s performance concept and it was thus invaluable to have bass-baritone Shane Lowrencev on hand to sing powerfully from Meistersinger and Die Walküre. Especially in the latter, Wotan’s farewell to his daughter Brünnhilde, the singer conveyed both tenderness and a strong dramatic presence, a highlight of the evening that was acknowledged by the audience.

The second half of the programme focused on the world that followed Wagner. A roll-call of French composers —more so than his own compatriots— took inspiration from the German, and a performance of Chabrier’s somewhat rumbustious overture to the opera Gwendoline clearly demonstrated this: “a mish-mash of all things Wagnerian” according to Fisch. Probably not heard in Australia in many a year, the airing was much appreciated by the audience.

In sharp contrast, the Austrian composer Anton Bruckner strove to be a Wagnerian without actually embracing the latter’s abandonment of the rules of form. But the influence of Wagner in Bruckner’s sound palate was unmistakable and included the contribution of the Wagner horn, four of which graced the playing of the second movement from Bruckner’s 7th Symphony. Fisch noted sadly that Bruckner has little currency in Australia, as in the USA. This heartfelt performance must surely have opened ears to this anomaly.

Finally we were treated to Richard Strauss’s display of a full panoply of Wagnerian orchestral ideas within the framework of the Lisztian tone-poem in an incisive, virtuoso performance of Don Juan. By turns tender and sweeping, the beautiful oboe work (Peter Facer) was just one highlight in a performance that elicited a thunderous reception from the audience.

To re-iterate the tribute to all concerned contained in the review of Wednesday’s concert, this two-part series was both an inspiration and an unqualified success… and a reason to bear in mind next year’s scheduled concert performances of Tristan und Isolde (16 & 19 August 2018). There was a near-full house to give their vote in favour of this stimulating and enjoyable style of presentation. It is doubtful whether very many, if any, in the audience would have wished to be in any other concert hall in the world on this particular Saturday night!

Top: Asher Fisch and WASO, photographed by Emma van Dordrecht.

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