REVIEW Fisch and WASO breathe fresh life into Beethoven’s symphonies – Paul Hopwood

Review of WASO’s Beethoven Festival

Reviewed by Paul Hopwood
on the 25th August 2014
in the Australian
Perth Concert Hall

Music Beethoven Festival West Australian Symphony Orchestra. Conductor: Asher Fisch. Perth Concert Hall, August 22 and 23.

THE Beethoven Festival — all nine symphonies over two weekends, with a host of associated lectures, panel discussions and chamber music — is the West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s most adventurous act of programming in many years. It breaks the regular cycle of subscription series and offers a rare opportunity to hear these familiar works anew.

Asher Fisch is the driving force behind the event. Although he is already a great favourite of Perth audiences, one suspects his first year as principal conductor will be judged to a large extent by the success of this festival.

Over the course of these first two concerts, comprising the first five symphonies, Fisch demonstrated total commitment and command. Granted, these works are well-worn repertoire staples, but even so it is remarkable to see Fisch dispensing entirely with his score. This familiarity permits him the most direct and immediate contact with his musicians.

And the results were palpable. Strings played with a lean, energetic and focused sound, and the orchestral textures were crystal clear. At one moment Fisch’s graceful gesture would shape an elegant fleeting phrase with great care, and in the next he would demand — and receive — a headlong plunge through a passage of rhythmic power and intensity.

Fisch’s tempos were energetic and natural. I particularly admired the slow movements in the first, fourth and fifth symphonies. Here Fisch achieved a wonderful balance between surface detail and a sense of spaciousness and breadth that emerged over longer spans and phrases.

The blistering pace set in the finale of the fourth symphony was as thrilling as the mournful, heavy tread in the slow movement of the third.

There were many highlights. It is delightful to be reminded how central the timpani is to Beethoven’s orchestra, an effect that cannot be captured on recordings. Principal oboe Peter Facer’s solos in the Eroica were meltingly beautiful, and the timbre of principal flute Andrew Nicholson’s wooden instrument was ideally suited to this repertoire. Violins were as energised by furtive, scurrying phrases as they were for resplendent climaxes, and the horns were outstanding, most notably in the hunting call section of the Eroica’s third movement.

Even at this halfway stage, one is tempted to suggest that the Beethoven Festival may be the most significant event on Perth’s cultural calendar this year.

PAUL HOPWOODWASO’s Beethoven Festival continues this weekend.