Fisk and Robison excel on 'Mountain Songs'

September 30, 1997|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The high point of the recital given by guitarist Eliot Fisk and flutist Paula Robison in Shriver Hall Sunday evening came in the "Mountain Songs" of the American composer Robert Beaser. Beaser and Fisk have been friends since their undergraduate days at Yale, more than 20 years ago, and the guitarist, along with Robison, commissioned the work in 1984.

The "Mountain Songs" consist of adaptations of eight popular folk tunes -- such as the familiar ballad "Barbara Allen" and the almost equally well-known lullaby "Hush-You-Bye" -- that came to this country with the Scots-Irish immigrants who settled the Appalachians. Beaser has not merely transcribed these pieces, but completely reworked them. The effect upon the listener is to hear this music as if it were fresh; the composer has reversed the process of erosion that centuries of familiarity almost inevitably work upon a melody.

In "House Carpenter," Beaser turns the four-square, chordal tonality upside-down, transforming it into a syncopated melody and accompaniment that proceed with the intense inevitability of a first-rate Schubert song. "Hush-You-Bye" also subverts the listener's expectations, with a fantasia-like setting and an underlying passacaglia that lets the lullaby emerge only in the final bars. And the setting of "The Cuckoo," which is scored for piccolo rather than flute, is interrupted by nightmarish birdcalls.

Not all of the music is tragic in tone. "Mountain Songs" is as effective as it is because of its architecture. Interspersed in the cycle are numbers such as "Cindy," which resurrects the merry, banjo-picking spirit of 19th-century minstrelsy, and "Quicksilver," the only original song in the set, which closes "Mountain Songs" on an affirmative note.

Fisk and Robison played this music beautifully, as they did everything else on the program. Their performances of their own transcriptions of "Six Latin American Folksongs" paid tribute to their own musicianship and their command of their instruments.

In pieces by Piazzolla and Villa-Lobos and in works for solo guitar by the Paraguayan composer Agustin Barrios, however, Fisk proved himself to be a more interesting performer (on what is admittedly a more interesting instrument than the flute). In pieces either evocatively melancholic (such as Villa-Lobos' "Song of the Black Swan") or staggeringly virtuosic (such as the second of the Barrios pieces, with its difficult repeated notes), he was unfailingly magnetic. It would be nice to have him back in a solo recital.

Pub Date: 9/30/97

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