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Oh those Russians

Review: WASO Masters Series – Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2 and Shostakovich’s Symphony No.10 •
Perth Concert Hall, 25 November •
Review by Tiffany Ha •

Panic rose as we drove along the Swan River, past Demolition Derby cars, towards the overflowing carpark opposite the Concert Hall. There were only ten minutes left before conductor Asher Fisch and pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk would walk on stage to begin those brooding, rising chords of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto – one of the most memorable and unmistakeably Russian works in the orchestral canon.

Somehow we managed to park, sprint several blocks across town, collect our tickets, and find our seats just seconds before the house lights dimmed… albeit sweaty and breathless. Hot tip: allow plenty of time for parking, or ditch the car altogether for your weekend WASO outing.

Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto – one of the most famous and loved in the repertory – has always served as a kind of benchmark among young pianists. As a student one would refer to it in hushed tones: “He’s learning Rach Two” or “She played Rach Two when she was in high school”, to which others would respond with protracted “oohs” and nods of respect. But what makes the Concerto so favoured is not its difficulty. Rather, there is something about this music that is deeply touching and satisfying. It’s lush, lyrical, fervent and personal. It’ll make you swoon, perhaps even cry. Eric Carmen’s 1975 hit “All By Myself” borrows liberally from Rachmaninov’s opening theme in the second movement of the concerto (yes, that’s why it sounds so familiar).

At times Fisch and Gavrylyuk moved and gestured as if negotiating a temperamental beast; I couldn’t help but think of Daenerys, Mother of Dragons.

In my many years of attending WASO I don’t think I have ever seen a crowd as moved as it was on Saturday night. There were gasps between each movement; nearly everybody leapt to their feet at the conclusion of the Concerto, standing for four rounds of applause. Fisch and Gavrylyuk had such wonderful rapport. They gave each other space at the helm of the orchestra, navigating musical swells and storms calmly, authoritatively and humbly. At times they moved and gestured as if negotiating a temperamental beast; I couldn’t help but think of Daenerys, Mother of Dragons. For Fisch, the dragon was the big, fiery orchestra. For Gavrylyuk, the dragon was a nine-foot Steinway, which soared and thrashed and whispered beneath his fingertips in a brilliant display of virtuosity.

After a breath-taking encore performance of Rachmaninov’s “Vocalise” for solo piano, followed by intermission, Fisch and the nearly one-hundred-strong orchestra returned to the stage for Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony. The work first premiered in 1953, soon after the death of Joseph Stalin. The Soviet leader had alternately praised and denounced Shostakovich so many times throughout his career that I feel his bio should come with a trigger warning. In the Tenth Symphony, we hear the composer striving towards authenticity in the sheer breadth of ideas and emotions he explores. Fisch and WASO handled the complex material masterfully, from the immense weight of the first movement to the zappy, explosive “Gopak dance” in the second. To witness such depth, sensitivity and control of tension is rare in an orchestral performance of this scale.

To witness such depth, sensitivity and control of tension is rare in an orchestral performance of this scale.

We had the pleasure of hearing two monumental pieces – both Russian, both from the same era – showcasing two very different individual styles. First we had Rachmaninov, who suffered a stifling depression after his poorly-received First Symphony, “cured” himself with hypnotherapy, and then made the Comeback Of The Century with his Second Piano Concerto. Shostakovich faced national scrutiny and criticism for most of his career, which made him very good at finding obscure and subtle ways of voicing dissent through music – think of it as a very elusive, passive-aggressive, non-verbal rap battle. And like rap musicians, his struggle makes him Real, gives his work gravitas. What could be more Romantic than that?

If you’re planning a WASO date and wish to rouse in your companion a deep yearning or passion, go with something Russian-sounding, composed between 1820 and 1950. Though, to be honest, simply being able to spell these composers’ names correctly will score you brownie points.

Pictured top is Asher Fisch.

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