Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Very Odd Mr. Fisk

Eliot Fisk and I come from the same generation of classical guitarists, that is, the first generation of players from the Western Hemisphere to study in Europe as students and come back to initiate guitar programs in the Americas. In Eliot's case, he was a student at Yale and was later asked to begin a guitar program there. In my case, I was a student at the University of Victoria and was later asked to begin their guitar program.

I only met Eliot once, in Salzburg in 1988 when I was in Pepe Romero's master class there and he paid us a visit. Now Eliot is giving that master class himself. I haven't heard much of him in recent years, but as I was looking for a clip of the Britten Nocturnal just now to replace one that disappeared, I noticed a recent performance of Eliot's at the New England Conservatory (where he also teaches) in 2013. Here is that clip:

If you read the comments, you will notice that there is quite a disparity between ones of effusive praise:
This performance is nothing short of historic. The interpretation is so rich, the overarching structure so clear, yet generously spontaneous. Eliot at his very best!
One of the greatest performances in the history of the guitar! Bravo Maestro!
And ones that are rather less complimentary:
Fisk is such a bizarre player.  Every so often he really makes the guitar talk - like the first movement hear for example, he produces a lovely tone.  Then he goes and ruins it by trying to play faster than his technique can handle, and hacking horribly at chords etc.  Not a patch on Julian Bream's version!
Yes indeed, quite sloppy. Perhaps he should have slowed down a fraction for the sake of getting at least some clear tones. One basic thing is to try to make the notes you're slurring to be at least as loud as the notes you're slurring from. This is an ugly performance.
 I expect my commentators to weigh in with their thoughts, but here are mine. The last time I heard a clip of Eliot it was this one:

That's from a few years ago, but the same problems are evident. Let us enumerate them:

  • he is beating the guitar to death which is why he is having to adjust the tuning every few measures
  • another sign of the excessive pounding on the instrument is the awful tone: nasty, naily and percussive
  • his tempos are faster than he is capable of executing cleanly, which is why so many notes are barely heard and so many rhythms are distorted
  • this piece is perfect for players who are mindless technical machines as it is pretty much pure virtuosity, so for Eliot it is a good choice, but he simply cannot play it cleanly, so the end result is just bad
This is playing so bad that it is painful and, for me at least, unlistenable. I would not be willingly present at a recital by Eliot Fisk.

The Britten is a rather different situation. This is the musical opposite of the Paganini and requires the greatest sensitivity of musicianship. For the first, slow section, Eliot almost has us convinced he has given up his bad old ways. But no, as soon as the next, fast, section begins, the raucous brutality returns and the sheer sloppiness, missed notes, bad tone and lack of musicality makes it also unlistenable.

Eliot Fisk's career is a mystery to me. If you read the Wikipedia article, he appears to be an artist on a level with Andrés Segovia, if not just slightly higher:

After attending Jamesville-Dewitt High School in Dewitt, New York, Class of 1972, Fisk also studied interpretation under harpsichordists Ralph Kirkpatrick and Albert Fuller at Yale University, where he graduated summa cum laude in 1976. After graduation, he was asked to form the Guitar Department at the Yale School of Music. He won first prize in the International Guitar Competition in Gargnano in 1980 in which jury members included Oscar Ghiglia and Alirio Diaz, and Ruggiero Chiesa. Fisk was the last direct pupil of Andrés Segovia. In the mid 1990s Segovia's widow, Emilia Segovia, Marquesa de Salobreña, asked him to premiere and record original works of Segovia discovered after the Maestro's death in 1987.
He is a professor at the Universität Mozarteum Salzburg in Austria, where he teaches in five different languages, and in Boston at the New England Conservatory. His students have come from many countries, and many have gone on to become important performers and teachers in their own right.
Fisk lives in Boston, Salzburg, and Granada, Spain with his wife, Zaira, and their daughter, Raquel. For many years he used a handmade Thomas Humphrey Millennium guitar and now exclusively plays guitars made for him by Stephan Connor of Cape Cod Massachusetts. He received the Grand Cross of Isabel la Cátolica on June 10, 2002, from King Juan Carlos of Spain. Earlier recipients have included Andrés Segovia and Yehudi Menuhin. Fisk earned the award for contributions to Spanish music as an interpreter and teacher.
But if you listen to him play with objective ears, you will recoil in shock. Of all the famous guitarists who are actually bad musicians, he is the most famous. Eliot Fisk is a bad guitarist and the idea of him teaching students is appalling.

For the polar opposite to Eliot Fisk, I suggest listening to a bit of Manuel Barrueco:


Christine Lacroix said...

Them there were pretty harsh words for poor old Mister Fisk. I hope he deserves them. I'm not capable with my untrained and untalented ear of detecting his failings. He must be pretty bad for you to be so condemning. So how do you explain his success? He doesn't have 'male model good looks' or sexy attire. So what is it? Maybe you have an ear like a wolf that can hear what the majority of the population can't? Maybe real wolves would find Albneniz equally dismal? Which begs the question, if only wolf like ears can hear Fisk's failings maybe he's not so bad?

Bryan Townsend said...

I can remember putting up a post quite a while back in which I mentioned one interesting difficulty for those of us who basically "live in music" is somehow retaining a sense of how people who do not "live in music" hear music and relate to it. Your comments go a long way towards bridging that gap! So thanks.

I thought that simply listening to Eliot play pretty much anything would be all the evidence needed as his approach is pretty obvious. And as an added clue, reading the Wikipedia article, one so sycophantic that he must have written it himself, would suffice.

What if I were to put alongside Eliot's Paganini several other performances that are much cleaner technically and more musical? Would that help?

As for the mystery of his career, I think that there are anomalies in every field where someone whose egoistical ambition and energy has enabled them to a achieve recognition far greater than other more capable people.

Sharon Cheema said...

I hear what you mean. It was kind of like watching Gene Wilder play the guitar.

Bryan Townsend said...

Right!! I was looking around and found a clip of him playing the Bach Chaconne in the breakneck time of just over 11 minutes. The comments to that clip are most interesting. Out of the first 24 comments sixteen were extremely negative. Extremely negative, as in:

"Im sorry, but that was just beyond horrible. Look, I don't care when one butchers the Paganini caprices, but destroying the Bach chaconne truly is something else. Disgusting..."

Christine Lacroix said...

It would help me if you posted a benchmark for the same piece. But maybe most people coming to your blog don't need that. I definitely enjoyed Albeniz more but I thought it was because of the choice of music. I don't think I have a very good ear to start with. In the comment section under this clip of Joey Alexander playing Blackbird the commenters are outraged that they gave the kid a poorly tuned piano. 'Tune the kid's piano!' I went back and listened again and again and still couldn't hear it. But maybe with a benchmark...?

Christine Lacroix said...

Just checked out the Bach Chaconne clip and he has more 'dislikes' than 'likes' which is rare on YouTube since it's usually the fans who find and comment on the clips. I wonder how he would respond to his critics. What would he say to explain himself? I can't remember a post where you were so negative about a musician's ability as opposed to what they choose to do with it.

Bryan Townsend said...

Coincidentally, I just spent the last hour writing a post that takes Eliot's Chaconne performance as its subject. Have a read!

Yes, a benchmark is exactly what is needed. Because, to most people, these things are not obvious.

No, I very rarely criticize a musician's performance.