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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger



Sharon Isbin Plays Baroque Favorites for Guitar
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)

Violin Concerto in a, BWV 1041 (1729) (arr. Bergstrom/Isbin) [13.39]
Keyboard Concerto BWV 1056: Adagio (1729) (arr. Tureck/Isbin) [2.50]
Prelude for Lute in d, BWV 999 (1740?) (arr. Isbin) [2.10]
Cantata #147: ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’ (1716) (arr. Duarte) [2.56]
Antonio VIVALDI (1678 - 1741)

Concerto for Guitar and Strings, R 93 (>1735?) (arr. Pujol/Isbin) [11.40]
Concerto for Guitar and Strings, R 82 (>1735?) (arr. Pujol/Isbin) [10.17]
Tommaso ALBINONI (1671 - 1751)
Adagio (fragment, reconstructed 1945 by Remo Gaziotto) (arr. Duarte) [7.51]
Sharon Isbin, guitar
Zürcher Kammerochester/Howard Griffiths
Recorded at ZKO-Haus, Zurich, Switzerland, October 2002
Notes in English, Français, Deutsch
WARNER CLASSICS 0927 45312-2 [51.58]

Comparison recordings:

Bach: Prelude BWV 999. Julian Bream, guitar [ADD] RCA/BMG 09026-64001-2

Bach: Prelude BWV 999. Jacob Lindberg, 13 course baroque lute BIS 588

Bach: Violin Concerto in a, BWV 1041, Standage, Pinnock, E.C. Archive 410 646-2

Vivaldi: Concerto R 93, Julian Bream Consort [ADD] RCA/BMG 09026-61588-2



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In general I like transcriptions of Bach, especially when they give us a "new" concerto for a previously neglected instrument. And I am particularly pleased to see more investigation of the place of the lute/guitar in the works of J. S. Bach as I feel that these instruments and Spanish music in general played a greater part in his musical æsthetic than has been heretofore generally acknowledged.

Sharon Isbin was studying rocket science when she made her public performance debut at the age of 14 in Minnesota. The experience was so positive she changed careers and went on to study Bach with Rosalyn Tureck for ten years, and is now head of the guitar department at Juilliard School of Music.

You may be asking what Tureck has to do with the guitar. Others, including myself, are asking what Tureck has to do with Bach; although I was able to enjoy Tureck’s recent Goldberg Variations recording by taking advantage of the option offered on the CD to speed up the performance. In general I do not care for her Bach performances and disagree with her written comments.

Miss Isbin’s approach to the guitar is to emphasise choppy phrasing and to attempt the greatest possible dynamic range on the instrument. Loud notes are plucked so strongly that at times they squawk annoyingly, while the quietest notes are brushed with the finger so lightly that they are barely audible above the finger noise. This range is put at the service of an exaggerated ‘original performance practice’ aesthetic which greatly accents phrases, resulting in a jerky, at times actually stumbling, forward motion. Add to this a sympathy with Tureck’s ‘I’ve got a secret I won’t tell’ philosophy towards Baroque ornamentation, namely that there was a secret code known to all baroque keyboard artists and to no one else. This secret is said to have dictated an absolutely correct ornamentation to each phrase of the music, which was then to be played this way at all times and under all circumstances. Needless to say, I don’t believe it, and I don’t feel that the results heard here reinforce the philosophy.

Ornamentation in the Baroque was a personal communication from the performer to his or her audience. Apart from frequent application of a few generally agreed stylistic conventions, ornamentation was strictly a matter of the occasion and would be different from one performer to another, from the same performer on different instruments, and from the same performer and instrument on different occasions. Any strict canon of ornamentation, including written tables from the baroque period or carefully written out ornamentations on specific baroque and earlier manuscripts, are in all cases to be taken as advisory only. They are to be considered by the performer as optional and as subordinate to his or her informed judgement and musical taste. Ornaments should enliven a performance, add grace, verve, energy, tears, sighs, a little showmanship, maybe even playfulness.

Of course we must not make the mistake of allowing what a musical performer writes to affect our perception of the musical performance at hand, any more than we should consider an actor’s politics when we enjoy live drama. Tureck’s ornamentation of a musical phrase expresses her own taste and judgement, and should be accepted as such wherever she says she got it from, and the same in regards to her students. The sins of the teacher should not irrupt into our perception of the student’s work. So if Isbin’s ornamentation sounds like something she got out of a book, and it does, it has to be considered to be her fault and no one else’s. She chose the book, and she can open it or close it at will.

The most successful performance on the disk is the Albinoni. Since this work is usually played with gushing, passionate sentimentality, a relatively crisp version as we have here is a refreshing change. The Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring is done smoothly; here the strong phrasing adds passion without sentimentality and the embellished guitar part adds interest. This is the only version of this chestnut I could actually recommend to anyone. I would really like to hear Isbin play an arrangement of the Aria from Bach’s Orchestral Suite in D, BWV 1068. If she brings this off as well as I think she would, she could make Thurston Dart sit up in his grave and start applauding. Her performance of the Bach Lute prelude BWV 999 does not involve antic phrasing or routine ornamentation, and comes across directly and pleasantly, with a total absence of distracting finger noise. But one misses the energy and drama one finds in Lindberg and Bream.

The Concerto BWV 1041 is disappointing, perhaps mostly due to recording perspective. Comparing it to Simon Standage and Trevor Pinnock, as far along the ‘original performance practice’ scale as I’m prepared to go, Isbin/Griffiths intrude with gratuitous accents that add nothing in drama. During the tutti passages the guitar’s loud notes obliterate the orchestra, while the quieter notes in the same phrase disappear. During the solos, the guitar is merely a little too far forward. The slow movement is much more successfully balanced, tempi and ornaments are well chosen, but the orchestra is still just a little too bouncy. Again, in the final allegro assai the soloist would have been better advised merely to double the strings during the tutti passages, rather than insisting on having something to say at every moment.

The Vivaldi Concerto R 93 is played extremely well and very enjoyably by both Bream and Isbin. Bream plays on a lute with a small group of soloists, achieving a real chamber music feel, although at times the harpsichord is too prominent. His performance of the slow movement is breathtakingly beautiful. Isbin plays in front of a string orchestra and in both Vivaldi works gives us a fully ornamented repeat in the slow movement. The difference is almost intangible, with Bream giving us a focused intensity and Isbin being more scholarly. Isbin’s concentration during R 82 is less than during R 93. What did I say above? Just a little more straightforward musicianship and less acrobatics and research would be an improvement.

As I am probably too fond of saying, when I was a kid all the world’s great string players were ugly old Jewish men with beautiful souls. Now more and more virtuoso string performers seem to be pretty girls, or at least attractive women, and the CD packages are graced with ‘friendly’ pictures which seem to be getting a little more intimate each time. I have the feeling that if this trend continues we are not far from our first nude centerfold in a CD booklet.

Paul Shoemaker



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