Pianist Charles Fisk presented an all-Chopin program Saturday night, March 13, on a fine small Steinway grand in the intimate Jewett Auditorium at Wellesley College, assisted by his Wellesley colleague, violoncellist David Russell, who joined him in performing the composer’s Sonata in g minor, op. 65. I must confess I kept wondering what it would have been like to have heard this playing from an Erard instrument in this room, but how irrelevant, for that is not Fisk’s instrument: Fisk is a master of the modern piano. Although he does not always play the right notes (there, I said it!), somehow in his hands, it matters only because it is startling. Since his appointment to the faculty at Wellesley in 1973, he has also become a theorist, fascinated by form and structures—his book on cyclic procedures in Schubert was published by the University of California Press in 2001. He is currently on leave writing a memoir of his experiences of Chopin’s music, “as a child, a piano student, a concertgoer, a piano teacher, an academic professor, a student of the musicological literature, and a writer concerned with the nature of musical meaning.” Thus it is a real treat to share in his mature exploration of these works, and as a result, he and his listeners always know where they have been and where they are, informed as well by a sheer elegance in expression and feeling.
The music of the program was written during a period of roughly four years (1838-1843), and was intelligently choreographed and annotated by the pianist. In the preface to his notes, Fisk comments on Chopin’s transformation of genres of the time in several exemplars (Nocturne, Ballade, and Polonaise), and his single use of the Sonata for solo instrument and piano, the Fantasy (in A sharp major, op. 49), and the hybrid Polonaise-Fantasy (in A flat major, op.61). Fisk placed these last three works centrally (the first just before intermission). He opened with the Nocturne in c minor, op. 48, no. 1, and the Ballade in A flat major, op. 47. He closed with the rousing and familiar Polonaise in A flat major, op. 53:
The opening Nocturne and Ballade certainly reflected Fisk’s long view of this music, but over-pedaling obscured Chopin’s rich counterpoint. Although pedaling is indeed a matter of taste and interpretation on the part of the performer, it would seem inappropriate in these opening measures of the Nocturne (where there is none in the score):
To be sure in the Fantasy there are indeed long passages that include both scale work and even rests, where the score calls for one long pedal, although who’s to know what was added by late nineteenth-century editors in the name of “improvement.” Instead Fisk tends to “sing” the upper- and lowermost notes and let the block harmonies spill out. On the other hand, his softened arrival points in ascending passages reflects his deep understanding of the melodic lines, and makes them warmly poignant.
The Sonata for Violoncello and Piano in G minor, op. 65, is in four movements. In the Allegro moderato the performers were particularly well matched in richness of sound, and we in turn were bathed in it. The Scherzo was a bit too fast and breathless. The Largo allows the musicians to hand one another lines delicately back and forth, which they did with truly luscious results. The Finale: Allegro let them play with all the exuberance they could muster, and did. This work, and the long Fantasy in F minor/A flat major, op. 49, with its cyclic development that Fisk so clearly defines, were indeed the central focus of the concert. The penultimate Polonaise-Fantasy in A flat major, op. 49, is a wonder of harmonic changes, and shifting moods.
This concert was memorable most of all because of Fisk’s deep exploration of all of Chopin’s music over time as a pianist, an analytic theorist, and now a memoirist. A rare event indeed.