Asher Fisch’s three years as principal conductor with the WA Symphony Orchestra seem to have been building – via a series of Beethoven and Brahms festivals – towards a Wagnerian goal. The orchestra’s recent international tour included an all-Wagner program in Abu Dhabi and the 2017 season has two programs dedicatedto Wagner with concert performances of Tristan und Isolde planned for 2018. The concert on the weekend featured what was billed as the Wagnerian dream team: heldentenor Stuart Skelton and conductor Asher Fisch in a program of Wagner opera excerpts.
So what does Asher Fisch and WASO’s version of Wagner sound like? On Friday 26thWASO was sounding the most Germanic I’ve heard with vibrato-less woodwind embedded in the strings and warmed by a thick glossy brass sound. There was also – somewhat surprisingly – a sense of restraint, of lingering until the last moment so that when the swells of volume finally arrived they were simply sublime. And thirdly Fisch created a smooth roundedness through his restful contouring and carefully placed phrase ends.
With these aspects at work the Prelude to Parsifal was an exquisitely tailored masterpiece. The operatic excerpts were also excellent although given the through-composed nature of Wagner’s operas it was problematic expecting small excerpts to stand alone; the endings were abrupt and the motivic development only just underway.
It was worth it though to hear Stuart Skelton’s artistry. In the orchestral introduction to Allmacht’ger Vater (Rienzi) the melody was introduced in the cello section with some gold dust from harps and horns and when Skelton joined his tenor gleamed like a ray of light. He sang with rounded vowels, a centred glow throughout his range and seemingly endless streams of cushioned air. In Nur eine Waffe taugt (Parsifal) he moved easily between Wagner’s lyrical writing and more animated Sprechstimme, while in Wintersturme (Walkure) his portamentos had an ardent fervour. The dream team was most evident in Parsifal where the orchestra played equal partner to Skelton with Fisch and Skelton dovetailing with great attentiveness.
The second half of the program was taken up with Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, a weighty sixty minute work even with the fourth incomplete movement left off. Bruckner’s love of counterpoint was manifest everywhere with his long melodies supported and sometimes overrun by countermelodies and various permutations of the theme. From the opening bars with the languorous climbing phrases Fisch brought a breadth and vehemence to the orchestral dialogue.
Bruckner’s organist background was also evident in his sectional treatment of the orchestra. Fisch emphasised Bruckner’s different ‘organ manual’ approach to orchestration, allowing space for intimate cameos within the sprawling landscape. The contrasts between the pizzicato dance and the pounding chase of the third movement were thrilling. When the full contingent of blazing brass (including the Wagner tubas) was unleashed you could hear Bruckner literally pulling out all the stops.
In the third movement Fisch built a dark intensity into the slow descending phrases but Bruckner’s wintry Romanticism was starting to wear thin and heads were nodding in the audience. A full program of late-German romanticism may have been a bit too much on a hot Perth evening. Still the memory of the magnificent blended orchestral sound and Skelton’s gleaming tenor will stay with me a long time.
This review was first published in Limelight magazine 2016.