Australian Chamber Orchestra

Perth Concert Hall

reviewed by Neville Cohn


ACO Hamer Hall photo Jeff BusbyOver decades, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve listened to Haydn’s Symphony I04 in D minor. It is one of the glories of the classical era – and the Australian Chamber Orchestra was the ideal ensemble to give point and meaning to this supreme utterance. Much of the performance – whether in moments of high drama or introspection – bordered on perfection, leaving this critic in the rare and pleasant position of having to do little more than sit back and acknowledge artistry at a consistently impressive level.

There were also two premieres:  Movements (for us and them) by Samuel Adams  and A Knock One Night  by the indefatigable Elena Kats-Chernin, the latter’s new work in turn dramatic, sinister, occasionally charm-laden and quirky – and, as with all her work, instantly accessible..  Adams’ piece is music of a very different stripe, often dark in mood and tone, music suggestive of anger, fear and confrontation expressed in torrents of notes.

In Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1, Steven Isserlis, as ever, brought formidable ability to bear on his stunningly complete account of the work. Behind the printed note lurks an anguished demon – and Isserlis revealed it to the nth degree, presenting the cello line in the first movement with an impassioned, searing intensity that brooked no opposition. At its most intense, there was about the performance an urgency that drew me to the edge of my seat. The lengthy cadenza (which is the concerto’s third movement) was a model of what impeccable cello playing is all about.

Much hair flopping and facial contortion were a distraction but, as in the past, looking away from the soloist on-stage enables one to savour to the full the near-matchless quality of Isserlis’ profoundly meaningful playing. Shostakovich’s concerto is one of the most disturbing works he ever produced – and it takes a soloist such as this and an orchestra of highest calibre to encompass its daunting terrain in so complete a way – and so do full justice to the work.  An avalanche of thoroughly deserved applause prompted an encore, Isserlis playing Song of the Birds, a Catalonian folk song made famous by the legendary Casals and here offered in an arrangement for unaccompanied cello.

Isserlis played on the superb Nelsova Stradivarius of 1726 on loan to him from London’s Royal Academy of Music – and he is worthy of it.

A lavish bouquet in particular to Premsyl Vojta, that master of the French horn. His contributions were like a golden thread through the evening.

The Best of Bernstein

W.A. Symphony Orchestra

Perth Concert Hall

reviewed by Neville Cohn


Leonard BernsteinIf, as a result of unavoidable circumstances,  I’d come very late to the WASO’s concert at the weekend and managed to listen to only the last work on the program, I’d have gone home well satisfied. Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story was a sonically incandescent offering with irresistible rhythms, thrilling responses from the brass players and with those in the WASO’s bustling “kitchen department” in particular. delivering a sizzlingly effective conclusion to the evening. This was the orchestra at its focussed best.

This was particularly welcome because the evening’s curtainraiser – the overture to Candide – was disappointingly routine. Three Dance Episodes from On the Town came across in a more spirited fashion. The brass section was splendidly effective in The Great Lover – and a beautifully considered woodwind introduction to Lonely Town, that splendid pas de deux, fell pleasingly on the ear  Here, hushed notes from Brent Grapes on trumpet were spot-on as were contributions from flute and oboe. And I very much liked the verve with which Times Square 1944 came across.

Peak of the first half was a thrillingly intense and focussed account of a suite from Bernstein’s music for the 1954 movie On the Waterfront starring Marlon Brando. Like the movie, the music is the very essence of threatened and actual physical violence. Its undercurrents, in turn threatening and sinister, reinforced by emphatic drumming, make for hackle-raising listening. Conductor Benjamin Northey and the WASO sounded as one here.

During the intermission, I overheard an elderly man stating emphatically that he did not approve of a Jew setting psalms for use in a Christian church. I wondered whether he’d also have been upset had he been told that Franz Schubert, a Catholic, was commissioned by the cantor of a synagogue in Vienna to make a choral setting of Psalm 92 from the Old Testament!

Countertenor Nicholas Tolputt sang Psalm 23 in Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, bringing to this much loved text an almost eerie beauty. It was sung in the original Hebrew.  An in-form WASO Chorus sang beautifully, bringing a gentle, lyrical  – and reverential – quality to the setting of Psalm 131, especially while singing the words which in English read:

“Surely I have calmed

And quieted myself,

As a child that is weaned of his mother…….”

And in “Why do the nations rage” from Psalm 2, both chorus and orchestra brought point and meaning to the powerful text. But rather more care might have been expended on the pronunciation of the Hebrew text.  And, surely, a WASO audience which almost invariably applauds only at appropriate moments, could have done better and restrained itself from clapping loudly and intrusively between sections of the work. It well-intentioned response to a fine performance effectively demolished the mood so painstakingly built up during each section of the work.


W.A.Symphony Orchestra

Perth Concert Hall

reviewed by Neville Cohn


Stefanie-Irányi_Credit_Christian-DebusI have been attending – and reviewing – WASO concerts for more than 35 years.

During that time, I have experienced some of the most satisfying listening I could have hoped for.

And in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, Asher Fisch and the WASO played up to and even above that standard of excellence.

Indeed, Fisch did wonders in coaxing often gloriously satisfying moments – as well as half hours! – from his forces in this massive work.

And time flew by as measure after immaculate measure worked its aural and emotional magic.

In one of the most imaginative program compilations I’ve encountered in a long time, we heard, before the symphony, Mahler’s orchestration of the variations movement from Schubert’s Death and the Maiden String Quartet. This was frankly magical music making by players surrendering to the Muse in the most satisfying way. They were at the top of their game with phrasing so refined and meaningful as to take the breath away. Stand up, WASO players, and take a thoroughly deserved bow, not least for blended sonorities that bordered on perfection. Bravo!

There was magnificent musicmaking, too, in the first performance in Perth of Luciano Berio’s Folk Songs.

Here, I cannot too highly praise Stefanie Iranyi ‘s singing. Here was impeccable revelation of mood with the sort of phrase shaping critics dream about but only very rarely encounter in reality. And did this singer know how to enchant her listeners with notes clothed in ravishingly mellow tone! As well as a rare ability to evoke, precisely, the mood of the moment, Iranyi’s total absorption of the composer’s ideas was wholly convincing.. It was a triumph enhanced by the finesse of Asch’s direction. It came across as a compendium of sonic and expressive marvels. A storm of applause greeted its conclusion; it was a thoroughly deserved response.

If the concert had ended at that point, I’d have left more than satisfied – but more magic was in store: Mahler’s Fourth Symphony.

In the symphony, conductor and players responded to the score as if it had been written specially for them. Here were subtleties of phrasing, tempi that sounded entirely appropriate with, as well, a rare expressiveness that allowed the work’s manifold beauties to register at an impressively high level. And, in the closing movement, Iranyi’s singing added yet more lustre to the evening.

To usher in the evening, we listened to an account of Schubert’s famous lied – Death and the Maiden – accompanied at the piano by Fisch. This was less than entirely successful. The piano (because so much of stage space was taken up by players and their instruments) was positioned far too far to the right side of the stage. And because Iranyi’s voice was not as clearly audible as would have been the case had she sung from the front of the stage – the same could be said of the piano accompaniment – this was a too insubstantial offering to make its mark in a meaningful sense.



A Night in Vienna

W.A.Symphony Orchestra

Perth Concert Hall

reviewed by Neville Cohn

A Night in Vienna was made memorable by Asher Fisch’s gratifyingly meaningful direction as his forces, much on their musical toes, served up memorable moments from Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. I savoured every moment of this magical music given point and meaning at every turn. Its sensuous, passionate moments were impressively evoked.

This was far and away the high point of the program, an offering presented with rare flair and elan. Baron Och’s Waltz, in particular, could hardly have been bettered. It was delivered in high style with the WASO playing as if inspired, especially strings and French horns which were in finest fettle – as was Liz Chee on oboe.

Alexandre Da Costa gave us a Fritz Kreisler feast on his Stradivarius violin with those timeless gems – Liebesfreud,  Liebesleid and Schon Rosmarin – working their usual magic. Swaying to the rhythms of these much-loved delights, Da Costa delivered sonic nostalgia in spades.

Earlier, Da Costa’s virtuosic solo introduction to Kreisler’s Viennese Rhapsodic Fantasietta – and first rate double stopping – raised expectations that were less than fully realised as the work unfolded. Here, the solo line might to advantage have stood out more emphatically against the orchestral background.

Rather uncharacteristically, WASO’s account of the overture to Die Fledermaus bordered on the lacklustre as did the celebrated Emperor Waltz which struck a dull patch.



Geoffrey Lancaster (fortepiano) James Huntingford (fortepiano)

WAAPA Music Auditorium

reviewed by Neville Cohn

Prior to the performance at WAAPA Auditorium on Saturday, how many concertgoers, I wondered, would have realised that the opening item on the program, listed as Bagatelle in A minor, was,  in fact,  the much-loved Fur Elise? And as Geoffrey Lancaster ushered in what could arguably be the most famous of any keyboard piece described as bagatelle, there was a faint but nonetheless audible sigh of recognition as Fur Elise registered its presence. Prior to that, we listened to a very brief overture to the celebrated bagatelle, a flurry followed by a more sober statement that led into the piece proper.

This was of course, standard performance practice in Beethoven’s day.

But as Fur Elise unfolded, I noticed a number of concertgoers turning to their companions with a puzzled look. Others seemed almost offended.

These were perfectly understandable reactions because the underlying beat of the bagatelle was often extraordinarily elastic, now an acceleration, now much slower and introverted.

It’s playing that is utterly at odds with current conventional treatment of the piece.

But this was not some wilful or eccentric caprice on Lancaster’s part. On the contrary, what we were listening to was the product of years – decades – searching for musical truth – and offered with an authority born of the most detailed research.

For those with access to the very first recordings made by pianists in the early years of last century – many of these are now available – it may well be instructive, even revelatory, to discover how similar to Lancaster’s keyboard approach to Fur Elise some of these very early recordings are. Careful listening to these will show how much in evidence this elasticity of the beat the playing of the era was, how frequently hands were not precisely in accord with one another. There’s a mood of extemporisation to much of it.

But within a remarkably short period after those first recordings being made available, this manner of performance was to vanish almost completely to be replaced by the far stricter treatment of rhythm and hand co-ordination that we now take for granted. And  Lancaster is at the forefront of those bringing back that style into play (no pun intended). It’s too early to tell whether it will ultimately prevail.

It takes considerable courage to place so drastic an alteration to the status quo before the public. It’s an initiative that can so easily backfire courtesy of those who won’t hear (no pun intended) of so drastic a change to the status quo. It’s the music equivalent of an earthquake.

We also listened to Beethoven’s Rondos opus 51. These are great favourites with earnest young piano pupils at local eisteddfodau. But, again, as in Lancaster’s treatment of Fur Elise, there was authority in every measure as we were taken back in time to listen to music as those in Beethoven’s time might well have experienced it. Sonata in C minor from opus 10 (most of the program consisted of music in either C major or C Minor) was frankly fascinating; it was if we were hearing it for the very first time – and as Beethoven himself might have wanted it to sound.

James Huntingford played, inter alia, the Waldstein sonata, music that is no-man’s-land for any other than musicians with complete physical mastery of the instrument. I especially admired the closing pages of the first movement, given magical treatment, the sound reaching the ear as if through layers of fine gauze. It called to mind Moiseiwitch’s unforgettable 78rpm recording for HMV made during the 1950s..  The Pathetique sonata, too, fell well on the ear. Its lengthy adagio introduction could hardly have been bettered.  On the evidence of this performance, Huntingford is clearly a fortepianist on the rise.