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
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
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.