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Reassuring Play From Wellesley Pianist


Charles Fisk (file photo)
Charles Fisk (file photo)

Charles Fisk, professor emeritus of music at Wellesley College, has given annual recitals there for many years, events that I have always attended with pleasure.  He is not a world-traveler pianist; he doesn’t play 100 concerts a year, he doesn’t practice 16 hours a day on huge display pieces and warhorses. But in confronting the great monuments of keyboard art, always with modest demeanor but with all necessary strength, Fisk shows a fine understanding equal to that of any of today’s superstars. (He is also an expert on Schubert’s music, on which he has published an important analytical monograph.) Mostly I have heard him play Schubert, Chopin and Schumann, and some moderns; for Saturday in the Houghton Memorial Chapel he chose Bach and Beethoven.

Bach’s six partitas come from 1726-1731, his full maturity, after most of his achievements for the organ, and after the six English suites and the six French suites. No music of his is more sonically intense than these works. It is not that the formal counterpoint is intricate; it is the rich shaping of the individual melodic lines that makes their interaction so complex. There is a preponderance of two-part writing that readily gives the impression of three or even four parts at once — polyphonic melody at its triumphant best. Every moment is a distinct melodic event, and the ear has to concentrate on everything at once. This music has a winning quality of pure sound that is always apparent in a good performance, but there is also an intellectual depth that takes a long time and repeated hearings to comprehend fully. What was so comforting as well as stimulating about Fisk’s performances is that he projected that understanding so completely, underlining imitative entries, absorbing the inverted counterpoint so that the ear could more readily hear a melodic line that was now on top and now on the bottom and even in the middle of the texture, and contrasting the repetitions with a clear sotto voce sound. The C minor Partita (BWV 826), in six movements, begins in the style of a French overture, with thick chords and plenty of dotted rhythm, but soon moves into an extended three-section form that is unique for these works, as Fisk’s program notes pointed out. A different kind of beginning, more specifically dancelike, identifies the G major Partita (BWV 829), in seven movements; both works include the typical allemande, courante, and sarabande, each in two repeated sections of approximately equal length. Works like these are crowning examples of a keyboard art that within the line of history was about to change, especially as the harpsichord yielded pride of place to the youthful fortepiano.  Purists will always disagree, but I personally feel that Bach himself would have eventually preferred to hear his harpsichord music played on a piano, simply because of the younger instrument’s greater expressive capabilities in sound. Charles Fisk’s assured and elegant renditions of these two great works were all the evidence one might need.

Beethoven’s last two sonatas are typical examples of the calms and storms, which is to say the emotional detachments and furies, of his late style. The Sonata in A-flat major, op. 110, brings together a relaxed cantabile throughout most of its three movements, combined with an intellectual component of some severity: the two-section fugue in modo roverscio that forms a quietly radiant finale. The second movement is an abrupt scherzo in duple meter, a dance movement with built-in stumbles. I especially admired the way Fisk projected the Bebung (hesitation) on tied notes in m. 5 of the slow movement, a maneuver of dynamics and articulation that is often considered impossible on modern pianos; maybe it is impossible, but what I heard was entirely convincing. Why did Beethoven notate A-flat minor with a key signature of six flats in this movement, instead of seven? We may never know; Schubert did (almost) the same thing in his Impromptu op. 90 no. 4, and in one well-known song.

Beethoven’s last sonata, Opus 111, has been widely criticized for being incomplete in just two movements — though other sonatas of his have this property. When he sent the manuscript to his publisher, he got a letter back saying that the expected rondo finale was missing — had the composer mislaid it? Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s obnoxious factotum, asked him why he hadn’t written a third movement; with admirable insouciance, Beethoven said that he hadn’t had time to write one. The raging C minor of the first movement of Opus 111 is sonically too mighty even for his own pianos, and if he could have heard a modern grand piano with cast-iron frame, an instrument with 40 tons of string tension, he probably would have composed this movement differently. (Even Chopin seems to have imagined an instrument that didn’t yet exist on earth when he composed the middle section of his C-sharp minor Scherzo. And indeed Chopin, who claimed he didn’t understand Beethoven, seems to have had this first movement of Opus 111 in the back of his mind when he wrote the “Revolutionary” Etude, op. 10, no. 12.) Yet the emotional peak of Opus 111 is not the first movement but the 9/16 Arietta, with its slow but certain progress through the layers of heavenly contemplation. (The other-worldly mensural excursions into 6/16 and 12/32 have excited generations of students who discern adumbrations of ragtime; I can remember one student in my Beethoven class who said that the 12/32 variation was the first piece he listened to in the entire course that excited him.) Charles Fisk began this movement a little too fast, but quickly settled down to a quiet pace that carried through to the final exalted variation with complete smoothness and conviction — a quiet ending to an evening that glowed with the reassurance of art.

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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