Although Shostakovich’s passionate and bombastic Symphony No 5 was the main feature of this West Australian Symphony Orchestra concert, the first half was equally beautifully rendered, including an orchestral suite from Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and the emotive Poème for violin and orchestra by Ernest Chausson.

WASO Masters Shostakovich

Asher Fisch and members of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra at the Power and Passion concert. Photo © Linda Dunjey

Principal Conductor Asher Fisch’s fine interpretation and depth of experience for Wagnerian repertoire was very evident in the opening piece of the concert – orchestral selections from the 1868 operatic comedy Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. These lush and optimistic music selections were skilfully rendered; the opening string movement of the prelude was rich and dynamically varied, and the playfulness of the excellent woodwind section within the Dance of the Apprentices was vivid and bright.

Not a prolific composer, Ernest Chausson reportedly wrote the 1896 Poème for violin and orchestra after a request for a violin concerto from his friend, the Belgian virtuoso violinist Eugène Ysaÿe. This initial request apparently rather terrified Chausson, who wrote to his friend that a concerto was “the devil’s own task”, but that he would instead, attempt a shorter work that would still showcase his friend’s talents. The resulting work is by no means child’s play, however, and the featured soloist, 22-year-old Australian violinist Grace Clifford, produced an emotionally intelligent and highly musical performance from exquisite yet challenging material, responding well to her colleagues in the orchestra during her performance passages, if a little awkward on stage during her non-playing moments and bows. However, her sweet spinning vibrato and mastery at the extreme top of her instrument showcased impressive technical facility, producing a highly dramatic and moving performance, with only the odd occasion of imbalance between soloist and orchestra.

It is impossible to listen to Shostakovich’s fifth symphony without sensing the weightiness of the composer’s endurance through great strife in Communist Russia, rendering his compositional achievement and the Symphony’s overwhelming public and critical success so much the greater. Having enjoyed relative creative freedom in the early years of the Soviet regime, Shostakovich’s career came undone when he drew the ire of Stalin himself, who visited a performance of the 1934 Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (in a subsequent staging) in 1936 at the Bolshoi, and whose disapproving sentiments of the “coarse primitive and vulgar” work were echoed in the communist party’s main publication, Pravda (Truth). Shostakovich endured this criticism, but lost the majority of his work, and survived in an environment now occupied by the Great Terror of the communist purges, where many of his associates and relatives were killed or imprisoned. After withdrawing his fourth symphony from performance midst criticism, he completed his Symphony No 5 and released it for performance, endorsed as Shostakovich’s “creative response to just criticism”. Audiences have been left to decide for themselves ever since, whether Shostakovich was truly penitent, or in fact a dissenting artist speaking perhaps just ambiguously enough through his music.

The opening Moderato movement was fantastically rousing in the string section, which delivered a particularly nuanced and emotive first theme, whilst also revealing a true depth of talent in the woodwind section, with fantastically rendered solos, particularly flautist Andrew Nicholson. The accelerando and tempi changes in this movement were expertly executed by Fisch and decidedly thrilling, the conclusion equally impressive in the brass section and percussion. The final violin solo from Riley Skevington was expressive, and heartfelt, and the repeated ascending chromatic scale that concludes the movement was a spine-tingling inducing moment.

The Allegretto showcased the orchestra’s exceptional command of the dynamic palette, and once again featured some lovely playful solo turns on the violin, flute, and from oboist Liz Chee and contrabassoonist Chloe Turner. The bombastic horn figures and snare drum and timpani flourishes were brilliantly buoyant.

The Largo encompasses the depth of emotional range of the composition, and along with it, the orchestra’s capabilities. This was never in doubt with expertly executed string pianissimi and once again the woodwind soloists Chee, Allan Meyer and Nicholson were exceptional. The conclusion of this movement with mournful string theme and harp harmonics was devastatingly beautiful.

The Allegro commenced with perfect fire and gusto, the orchestra clearly relishing the fortissimo passages and showcasing some fantastic trumpet leadership from Brent Grapes and the lower brass section. The percussion section shone at the conclusion, producing a rousing ending and the thunderous bass drum and timpani end gave rise to immediate rapturous cheers from an appreciative audience.

At Fisch’s prompting, we were all then treated to a delightful short rendition from the double bass section of the skilfully self-arranged Beatles’ When I’m Sixty-Four in recognition of double bassist Andrew Tait’s final performance with WASO after 32 years of service. This wonderfully cheeky and sincere moment was much enjoyed by everyone present.