For many years Charles Fisk gave an annual solo recital at Wellesley College, where he was a professor for many years, but after retiring from teaching there last spring, he decided this year to play in Cambridge at the Longy School, where many of his colleagues and friends have taught. He rewarded the small audience in Pickman Hall well on Saturday, beginning with Mozart’s seldom-heard Sonata in F Major, K. 533, a late work, expansive in form and even dramatic; the smoothly shaped, loving performance made one think of Don Giovanni and the 39th Symphony, written at about the same time. Fisk likes to program pieces that are tonally related when he can do so smoothly, and Bach’s “Sheep may safely graze” (Schafe können sicher weiden, from Cantata 208), in B-flat major, was an excellent choice to follow the Mozart. The aria is unique in Bach’s output, looking forward to 19th-century Romantics, and the obbligato of two flutes translated well to the piano in Mary Howe’s arrangement, which began with the recitative that precedes the aria in the cantata. Martin Brody, Fisk’s Wellesley colleague, was present to hear his short piano piece Safe, commissioned by Fisk and inspired by the Bach. Even in bumpy, gestural, texturally widespread piece there was perceptible paratonal B-flat major, filtered, as it were, through harmony that Duke Ellington would have admired.
The first half of the program concluded with a glowing reading of Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses, which are in D minor, another related key. In their often stormy moments these variations suggest Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata op. 31 no. 2 – also in D minor – but just as much they seem to be inspired by Bach’s organ music, which reminds us that Mendelssohn wrote the finest organ music in the 19th century before Franck.
A Chopin group began with the early Mazurka in C major, Op. 56, No. 2, moving smoothly to the beloved Waltz in A Minor Op. 34, No. 3. The great Ballade No. 4 in F Minor followed, and there is a tonal connection here as well: F minor relates to the key of the Mozart Sonata, but much of the interior dialogue of the Ballade takes place in A major, including the cadenza where the music subsides into a ruminative pause. Fisk’s performance was laid back and perfectly relaxed in tempo and dynamics—Chopin’s directions are subtle but nearly always precise – and surged into big outbursts only at the stretto just before the Coda. Fisk took this stretto too fast, in my opinion, but I have said this about every other performance of this Ballade I have heard in the past thirty years. (The three fff chords emphasizing C major should be no faster than the normal eighth-note tempo, I insist!) The brilliant double-note Coda, which is nearly impossible to play (Chopin really wrote too much here), came off in a blaze of sound.
The recital concluded with two beloved pieces by Debussy: Soirée dans Grenade and l’Isle joyeuse, tonally related through their abundant A major. Soirée dans Grenade is no. 2 of the three Estampes, and its habañera rhythm and some specific harmonies are well known to have been unashamedly swiped from Ravel. Fisk gave l’Isle joyeuse a joyful and even triumphant performance. I remember two quotes about this piece, one from Debussy himself (“Heavens! How difficult it is!”) and one from the late Paul Pisk: “Do you know l’Isle joyeuse? It’s in sonata form!” Debussy would have sniffed at that idea, but there are some good reasons for it in any case; Pisk implied to me that it was discussed in Schoenberg’s analysis classes. (Schoenberg loved Debussy’s music, he said; that may well be true, but the admiration was not mutual.)
Fisk played one encore, not tonally related but exquisite nevertheless: the second (in A-flat major) of Chopin’s Trois nouvelles études. The evening was a pleasure in all parameters, and I’d even make a suggestion: Charles Fisk ought to consider recording all of Mozart’s piano sonatas.