W.A.Symphony Orchestra

Perth Concert Hall

reviewed by Neville Cohn

It was a delightful program presented to a capacity house. It consisted of one of the most loved and timeless of all ballet scores as well as a work being played by the WASO for the very first time.

The latter  – Rossiniana – is Respighi’s orchestral arrangement of some pieces originally written by Rossini, part of a flood of miniatures that poured from his pen years after he’d given up writing operas. Rossini,  tongue firmly in cheek, called them ‘nothings’. They are anything but.

With Asher Fisch presiding over events, these charming pieces flashed most agreeably into life. Why has it taken an astonishing 94 years for this music to reach Perth?  I savoured these miniatures, each one a little gem. There was fine work here by oboist Liz Chee. The clear, carrying tone she produced was consistently pleasing. Percussionists, too, were very much on best form as was the brass section. I particularly liked the Intermezzo, a most engaging interlude made memorable by glittering notes drawn from the celeste by Graeme Gilling. It was a fine foil to the introverted and melancholy Lamento which preceded it. At times in the finale, the music was so upbeat and joyful, it would have not surprised me had some concertgoers stepped into the aisles and danced. Laurels, in particular, to flautist Andrew Nicholson and Michael Waye (piccolo) who, throughout the program, were much on their mettle..

I hope WASO audiences won’t need to wait another 94 years for a repeat performance.

Tchaikowsky’s Nutcracker Suite needs no introduction.

It’s arguably the world’s most loved ballet score, as meaningful and memorable in its way to the young as to listeners in their dotage. Suites drawn from the work have enchanted listeners  since the ballet had its premiere in St Petersburg, Russia in 1892. And Asher Fisch and the WASO were very much on form as we listened to page after page of orchestral and melodic magic, not least Waltz of the Flowers in which horns were in first rate form. Allan Meyer, that wizard of the clarinet, brought his exceptional abilities to the fore time and again. And a particularly lavish bouquet to the strings which sounded consistently on their mettle. Strings were very much on their musical toes in the character dances, notably the Chinese Dance and the Russian Trepak. And the Tarantella and Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy came across splendidly.

I’m pleased to report that, unlike the compulsive clappers who burst into maddeningly intrusive applause between movements of Mozart’s Symphony No 40 a week earlier, audience behaviour at this 11am concert could not be faulted.

W. A. Symphony Orchestra

WASO Chorus/ St George’s Cathedral Consort

Perth Concert Hall

reviewed by Neville Cohn

Ravel’s Sheherazade doesn’t feature frequently in concert programs. It’s formidably difficult to bring off successfully – and over the decades, I’ve sat through some sadly deficient accounts of  this masterpiece. But I am happy to say that at the weekend, Ravel’s score flashed into frankly magnificent life.

At every level, excellence was apparent. Asher Fisch’s direction was beyond reproach – and the highest praise must go to soprano Siobhan Stagg who sounded as if the music had been specially written for her. It abounded in enchanting vocal subtleties and flawlessly shaped phrases. This was artistry of the rarest kind, sonic heaven, an offering that would surely have moved even the grumpiest of concertgoers. I look forward very much to listening to this most impressive soprano again.

Indeed, just as Mrs Gaskell once so memorably said of Anthony Trollope’s novel Framley Parsonage, I wished this performance would go on forever. And, near-miraculously, even the compulsive clappers who had earlier sabotaged Mozart’s Symphony No 40 by bursting into implacable applause between movements, were stunned into respectful silence in the Ravel work – a considerable achievement.  I’d gladly have listened to Sheherazade all over again, not least for choral singing of impressive order. This would be ideal material for a WASO CD. Master flautist Andrew Nicholson was at his persuasive best here.

Despite the unwanted applause in the symphony, the skill with which Fisch and the WASO presented the inner movements and the finale of Mozart’s magnificent work, enabled the listener to experience the composer’s miraculous ideas to the nth degree.

Poulenc’s Stabat Mater is music of a very different stripe. It’s been around for nearly 70 years – but it will never be numbered among the composer’s most loved works. This was the first time ever that the WASO had programmed it. And under Fisch‘s direction, the work unfolded near-faultlessly. There was powerful, dramatic treatment of Cujus animam as was the case in Quis est homo. Stagg was at her most powerfully intense in Let me be wounded. Laurels in particular to the WASO Chorus and St George’s Cathedral Consort who sang very gently and so clearly in Let my heart burn. This was a most meaningful change of mood and a fine contrast to an intensely dramatic Vidit suum.

Siobhan Stagg

Asher Fisch

MOZART: Sonatas K570, K282 & K333

Lancaster playing Mozart in Hong Kong last year

Geoffrey Lancaster (fortepiano)’

Tall Poppies TP260

reviewed by Neville Cohn

As I listened to fortepianist Geoffrey Lancaster’s recently released compact disc recording devoted to three of Mozart’s keyboard sonatas, I wondered how some of my colleagues would respond to his approach to these works. For those for whom a strict, unwavering beat (apart from a rit at the end of this or that section of the work) is a non-negotiable requirement, Lancaster’s recordings could well trigger apoplectic responses from those unable – or unwilling – to accept that these sonatas are presented in a way that was standard practice during the composer’s lifetime and for a long time afterwards.

Lancaster playing Mozart in Hong Kong last year

As a young grand-pupil of Lili Kraus, I accepted without question that, in Mozart or Haydn,  a steady beat, with hands strictly co-ordinated, was de rigueur throughout. This is ever present in the Mozart recordings of, say, Walter Gieseking whose performances were – and still are for millions of listeners – considered the last word in the way to play the works of the Salzburg master. I’d like to think, though, that even this very great artist, after careful consideration, might have conceded – at least in part –  the validity of Lancaster’s revivifying approach to Mozart.

I hope these recordings receive a very wide listenership. They deserve it. In his retrieval of near-forgotten historic performing modes, Lancaster’s offerings warrant the highest praise and the widest listenership. This compact disc is a compendium of marvels. Even the least important succession of notes is treated with utmost care and, always, infused with beauty of tone and expression.

These performances are a joy from first note to last. I look forward very much to Lancaster’s recordings of more of Mozart’s sonatas – each one prefaced by what comes across as if it were an on-the-spot extemporisation by the soloist, a procedure that was standard practice at the time Mozart’s sonatas were being written.

As ever, Lancaster’s liner notes are a joy to read. They ought to be required reading by anyone preparing a Mozart piano work for performance.

I am certain that I am not the only listener looking forward with great anticipation to Lancaster’s next recording of the keyboard sonatas of Mozart.

WASO’s Festival of Chamber Music

Government House Ballroom

reviewed by Neville Cohn

Even in so zany and improbable a treatment of Bach originals as Luther Henderson’s arrangements for brass ensemble of some of the Master’s Preludes and Fugues from the “48”,  the sheer power and universality of the great composer’s musical ideas are wondrously apparent.  Titled Well Tampered (note spelling!) Bach, it was aural delight from go to whoa. I recall once listening to some of Bach’s work played on an ocarina – and again marvelling at how meaningfully it came across even on so improbable an instrument. In the extracts from the “48”, members of the WASO’s brass section were consistently on their mettle in the opening concert of WASO‘s chamber music festival.

I particularly relished a jazzy version of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C minor (from Book 1). It came across like some New Orleans take on the original. I relished every moment. I rather think that if Bach himself had, through some miracle if time travel, been at the Ballroom on Saturday,  he’d have given the players a wave of approval.

There was a non-Bachian offering as well: Joshua Davis’ South American Tango Suite: delightful, toe-tapping material that allowed WASO’s brass players to demonstrate their abilities with verve and precision. Tuba playing was excellent.

In the much loved Brandenburg Concerto No 5, soloists Semra Lee-Smith (violin) and Andrew Nicholson on flute gave point and meaning to every phrase. But higher decibel levels were needed for the harpsichord part to make a meaningful contribution. It was too discreet.

To get proceedings underway, we heard a magnificent brass fanfare  – a sonata (composer unknown) from Bankelsangerlieder dating from around 1684 – with players positioned on the tiny balcony at the rear of the stage.  It was a thrilling utterance.

During the intermission, concertgoers took their ease outside the Ballroom in the area fronting the venue where drinks and snacks were on offer. There was also a giant chess board for those who might have wanted a game or two during the intervals. And there was music, too, with flautist Nicholson offering streams of glowing tone on his golden instrument.

Later, we listened to Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet. Here, Allan Meyer was at his impressive best, producing a stream of sound that would surely have pleased even the fussiest of listeners. As WASO’s principal clarinet for years, Meyer has brought distinction to innumerable orchestral works. It was a joy to listen to him in Brahms’ masterpiece. As if drawing inspiration from this sonic magic, the string players sounded on very best form, not least cellist Louise McKay who was strikingly attired in crimson.

Also on the bill was Haydn’s String Quartet in D minor, opus 76 No 2, an offering enhanced by seriousness of purpose on the part of all four players.