★★★★☆ A violinist’s soloistic fireworks and a grand symphony open WASO’s 2016 season in fine style.

Perth Concert Hall
March 11, 2016

One could hardly ask for a more entertaining season opener than this first concert by the WA Symphony Orchestra for 2016, with the soloistic fireworks of Paganini’s Violin Concerto No 1 in D preceding one of the grandest and most popular symphonies of all time.

As a bonus, a Debussy Prelude preceded each work. This was a clever piece of programming: the Neapolitan colours of Les collines d’Anacapri (Book 1, No 5) prepared the way for Paganini’s operatic flourishes, while the more sombre, plainchant-inflected La cathédrale engloutie (Book 1, No 10) prefigured similar inflections in Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony.

And yet – and I may be in the minority – I am not a fan of David Matthews’ complete orchestration of the Preludes, preferring the subtlety of Debussy’s piano originals. Still, under the baton of Japanese-born, Berlin-based conductor Kazuki Yamada, here making his WASO debut, these two at least almost convinced me of their efficacy and charm.

As for the Paganini, well, nobody pretends it’s the world’s greatest music and such is the bombast of the orchestral opening you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d walked in on a Rossini opera overture. No, the pleasure lies wholly in thrilling to a completely insane solo part despatched by a violinist with as much technical skill and sense of humour as Ning Feng.

Indeed, I wasn’t the only one laughing out loud at Feng’s witty sprezzatura and unabashed ham, or gasping out loud at his effortless negotiation of every difficulty Paganini threw in his way – double and multiple stopping, lighting leaps and arpeggios, stratospheric harmonics, high-velocity pizzicati and ricochet bowing and I know not what else. And as if that wasn’t fun enough, we were sent off to interval with a hilarious account of Paganini’s Variations on God Save the King, Op. 9. Pure joy.

The “serious” core of the concert came in the second half with the Saint-Saëns and a real tribute to the clarity of Yamada’s vision and to WASO’s ability to translate that vision so palpably into a gripping performance.

Much has been made of Saint-Saëns’ use in this work of Lisztian thematic transformation, the integration of church modes and tonality, contrapuntal textures and, of course, the organ, here played with a sedate majesty by Stewart Smith. Such is the mind beguiled. But it is the melodic simplicity and joyfulness of the refulgent later sections of the second half that most impress themselves upon the heart. And so it was here.