As a guitarist in the classical music world, and as a woman in the guitar community, Ms. Isbin has had a steep climb in her career. This month, American Public Television will release a new documentary called “Sharon Isbin: Troubadour,” tracking her rise as a musical pioneer.In a way this reminds me of those articles about a particular female politician who is usually presented as being the "inevitable" next President of the US. So what do I have against Sharon Isbin? I've always felt with her that there was a promotional agenda that never had too much to do with music. That whole Bach thing for example:
Ms. Isbin went on to Yale University, and after graduation in 1978 she started studying Bach interpretation with Rosalyn Tureck, a pianist. Ten years later, she released the compilation “J.S. Bach: Complete Lute Suites,” and has since released over 25 albums, including “Journey to the New World” (2009) and “American Landscapes” (1995), which Mr. Hadfield brought up to the Russian space station Mir. She has personally won two Grammys and contributed to a third Grammy-winning album.Is she a good Bach player? Not particularly, in my view. I've just never found her to be particularly convincing as a musician. She is certainly a good technician on the guitar, a thin, naily tone aside, but there are lots of those out there. If you want just to focus on women guitarists (and why?), there are lots better artists like Ana Vidovic and Margarita Escarpa.
Here is a clip of Sharon Isbin playing the Double to the Gigue to the Lute Suite, BWV 997 by Bach:
You might think that I searched long and hard to find a performance so uncongenial, but no, this was the first clip that came up when I searched on YouTube for "sharon isbin bach". What's wrong with this? Well it is, sort-of, technically virtuoso, yes, but it is also very harsh and insensitive. This is playing Bach like you hate him! Normally that is not something I would say is technically praiseworthy. A technically polished performance also includes the need to make a good sound, to phrase, and to play with some grace. This is one of the most graceless performances of Bach I have ever heard with harsh accents pounded out on every downbeat. To be fair, let's listen to a different Bach performance. Here are the bouree and gigue from the Lute Suite No. 1, BWV 996:
Yes, that is much nicer, a studio, not a live recording, but it is still rhythmically unpleasant with excessive downbeats chopping up every phrase.
Am I just jealous of her career success? Well, to be honest, yes and no. Yes, because she has undeniably had more success than I have, no, because the only thing that really counts is the quality of what you do, not the raw numbers of how many people actually notice...
Let me find two other guitarists that play Bach rather better in my view, for comparison. Here is Göran Söllscher playing that same bouree and gigue:
Here is John Williams playing the gigue and double from the Lute Suite No. 2. The double starts around 2:51:
Williams can be a tad heavy-handed, as in the gigue, but I think the double shows how to play virtuoso Bach without crushing it in the process.
And to establish that there really isn't any kind of gender bias going on here, let's hear some better Bach from a female guitarist. Here is Margarita Escarpa playing the Fugue in A minor:
I heard her win the Guitar Foundation of America competition in Quebec in 1995 playing the most fluid, lovely and compelling Bach I have ever heard on guitar.