in: Reviews

October 21, 2013

Ease and Understanding from Fisk

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Charles Fisk, who is Phyllis Henderson Carey Professor of Music at Wellesley College, is a well-trained Ivy academic (Harvard and Yale), but many also know him as a leading Schubert scholar (Returning Cycles: Contexts for the Interpretation of Schubert’s Impromptus and Last Sonatas, University of California Press), and just as important, as a first-rate pianist.  On Sunday night at Wellesley’s Jewett Auditorium, he gave us fine confirmation of his knowledge and his skill: two sonatas by Schubert (D 664 and D 959) and Schumann’s Kreisleriana, Op. 16.  Piano music doesn’t get any better than these sublime works, and Fisk brought them forth with effortless ease and understanding.

To most audiences, the Sonata in A Major of 1819 Op. 120, is the most familiar of Schubert’s piano sonatas, with expansive melodic lines in its first and second movements like big roomy songs, sometimes with a bright outdoor feeling, at other times ineffably sad.  The third and final movement, in 6/8 with plenty of semiquaver motion, is more dancelike than songlike; if Mozart had lived another ten years, perhaps he could have written this piece.  But the sonata as a whole is on another planet from Beethoven’s sonatas, and thank heaven for that.

The sonata was a gentle warmup for the stormy textures of Schumann’s Kreisleriana, Op. 16 (1838), which is sometimes published with a subtitle, “Fantasy Pieces in Callot’s Style”.  Fisk’s expert program notes point out the psychological connections of Schumann’s eight individual movements with E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Kreisler stories.  Charles Rosen says that Schumann composed “nearly all” of the Kreisleriana in just four days, a feat of inspiration that hardly seems believable; but nobody disputes that the prodigious result includes some of the most imaginative and deeply felt music of all time.  (Schumann dedicated the Kreisleriana to Chopin, which tells you something.)  Fisk’s loving performance showed total understanding at every moment, with an expressive cantabile especially in the pensive and even brooding sections of the second and fourth pieces.  Am I the only one who hears a melodic and tonal connection between the eighth piece in the Kreisleriana and the finale of Schumann’s Symphony no. 1 (“Spring”), composed three years later?

After the intermission came Schubert’s greater Sonata in A Major, one of the three colossi that Schubert wrote in 1828, the year of his death.  What Schumann called “heavenly length” in Schubert’s great C major Symphony, D 944, applies to Schubert’s last sonatas and especially to this one, but in addition to the spacious heavenly dimension there is a darker one as well, with exploratory changes of key in the first movement and an outbreak of storm in the second.  Behind all the rarefied atmosphere, too, there is a harmonic invention that repeatedly produces unexpected turns of thought.  The song composer is always perfectly matched with the instrumental melodist in Schubert’s late works.  Fisk has an acute sensitivity to the melodic line in Schubert’s piano writing, reminding us all that Schubert wrote for his fingers no less beautifully than for the voice — and for the same reasons.

On November 13, at 12:30 in the same auditorium, Fisk will accompany three of the Wellesley voice faculty in “Songs of Schubert and Schumann”—more honor for all concerned.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably,  harmony.

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