Philip Edward Fisher: The Modern Pianist's Handle on Handel

Interview by John McMurtery. On a cold and snowy afternoon in February, I sat down with British pianist Philip Edward Fisher to discuss his debut solo CD: Handel’s Keyboard Suites (Volume 1), recently released on the Naxos label.


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I’m curious to find out about his personal connection to these works, and how the idea for the disc came about. Fisher’s normally cool demeanor turns animated as he discusses his passion for the suites, the perception of commercialism in Handel’s music, and the recording process.

JM: What attracted you to the idea to record this set of Handel keyboard suites?

During my early teens, I came across the famous live recording of Sviatoslav Richter and Andrei Gavrilov performing them at my local library, and I remember thinking, 'What?! Handel didn't write Keyboard Suites!' At that time, these works really were not in the 'public consciousness', and there were even fewer recordings around than there are now. It was that intrigue that drew me to the pieces initially, and I quickly grew to love them. They have a visceral, down-to-earth humanism totally unique to Handel‘s style, as well as moments of incredible beauty. I dreamed of recording the suites for some time, and when I was invited by Naxos to submit a proposal for a potential recording project it seemed the perfect opportunity. Naxos is a record label defined by its dedication to innovative and unusual programming, and so my proposal was accepted remarkably quickly....much to my surprise, and delight!

JM: I've only heard these works performed on the harpsichord. Were there any issues you had to confront when performing them on the modern piano?

Yes, definitely. There were of course all the usual technical questions associated with adapting harpsichord works to a modern instrument, just as with playing Bach on the piano. There's an even wider dimension to this issue when it comes to these particular pieces, due to a tendency in recent times to view them exclusively as harpsichord works. Bach's keyboard music, on the other hand, has been accepted as part of the staple piano repertoire for years.

Why this is - that’s a difficult question to answer, but it's one that can't be ignored when preparing a project like this. Any time you go against the grain, so to speak, you have to accept it won't be to everyone's taste, but that comes with the dinner.

JM: You mentioned the Richter/Gavrilov recording earlier., Richter is known to have written "Audiences (in every country) prefer to buy Bach - out of habit - and because, in doing so, they think they are showing 'greater musicality' ". What do you think he meant by that?

I think it would be a mistake to take that comment out of its historical context. There's always a sense of a particular composer being 'in vogue', and perhaps Bach has been more consistently celebrated over the years than Handel -- but it's interesting to note that wasn't always the case. Certainly in the composers' lifetimes, Handel was by far the more celebrated of the two - the people loved him, and his music had huge mass appeal.

Later, I do believe there was something of a backlash against that element of his music because it was seen as more accessible - 'commercial', even - which possibly led to Handel being undervalued in favor of the more 'cerebral' experience that Bach was seen to provide. You could say it was a certain 'musical elitism’ within the industry that drove this. It raises an interesting question: What plays a greater role in determining the way composers are viewed in society -- the audience or the industry itself?

I definitely think that in more recent times there has been a push to acknowledge that those elements within Handel's music render it no less valuable. Nowadays, it seems that he is rightfully viewed as every bit Bach's equal.

JM: Could you tell us a little more about what your own recording process was like?

Umm...for this disc, it was absolutely insane! For logistical reasons, I found myself with only one day to record 4 Suites! It was intense...I didn't want to move on from a particular movement until I felt I really had it right, but I constantly had one eye on the clock. That level of pressure definitely keeps you on your toes, and it can sometimes even help produce good results. But I can't say it's something I would want to experience too often! Luckily, I had fantastic support from my home town of Birmingham -- UK, not Alabama…[laughs]…especially from The City Council. I was also lucky to work with a fantastic producer and engineer, Jonathan Allen, of Abbey Road Studios.

JM: How do you feel that the recording process differs from that of live performances?

I find the recording process to be one of the most tiring experiences, far more so than live performances. I usually come out at the end of a session absolutely exhausted, unable to do anything. You always feel that each take needs to be 'the one', and so the pressure is high. Live performances are also pressurizing, but in a different way because you are communicating directly to your audience, and therefore spontaneity and adrenaline can carry you through. With recordings, you are also playing for an audience of course, but there is a massive delay - sometimes months or even years! - between the time you set down a track and when it finally reaches the listener’s ears. Generating the excitement of a live performance when it’s just you, in a room, by yourself, is challenging and requires a great deal of focus and imagination.

JM: I understand you've just recorded the second disc of the set. When is that due for release?

Yes, that's right. I recorded the second disc just a few months ago, again at Birmingham's Symphony Hall. It's currently in post-production, and comprises the final four suites of the set. Compared to the first four, there is a definite increase in intensity to the music, and it’s fascinating to bear witness to the creative evolution of Handel as a composer. I have enjoyed recording all of these suites immensely, and to see the project come to life is so gratifying. The first disc is out starting this week. The second disc is due for release sometime next year -- so stay tuned for that!

John McMurtery is a flutist with the New York City Opera Orchestra and an enthusiastic contributor to Notes On The Road.

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