As John Fisher’s name is relatively unknown in terms of 18th Century orchestral composers, and I personally hadn’t heard his music before, I was curious to give this new recording from Naxos a listen.
This particular recording is performed by the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice, conducted by Micheal Halász, and features the award winning harpsichordist Petra Žd’árská. Combined they do a commendable job of showcasing Fisher’s six symphonies, creating an engaging and elegant interpretation that should bring Fisher’s name up there with other British symphonic composers of that time such as Thomas Arne.
John Abraham Fisher (1744-1806), although best known as a virtuoso violinist in 18th-century London was also a prominent figure at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, writing celebrated stage works such as Harlequin Jubilee and The Syrens, the latter of which led him to be described as a ‘natural genius’ in a 1776 review. After graduating as a Doctor of Music from Magdalen College Oxford, Fisher began a more focused performance career, taking concert tours to Europe and Russia before meeting his wife Nancy Storace in Vienna, and subsequently settling in Dublin, Ireland, and eventually passing away aged 72.
Despite a relatively long and impressive musical career, Fisher’s six complete, and seventh incomplete instrumental symphonies remain largely unheard of in the modern era, though after listening to these renditions I cannot fathom why they are so undervalued. Each symphony is scored for harpsichord, two bassoons, two horns, two oboes, and strings, making it typical of many mid-18th century symphonies. Indeed, he also follows sonata form (an exposition, a development, and a recapitulation) to the letter, demonstrating his awareness of contemporary musical trends, as well as notable compositional techniques such as frequent contrasting dynamic markings and long, drawn out crescendos and diminuendos associated at that time with the Mannheim School.
In order to keep this review succinct, I shall only take a more detailed look at my favourite of Fishers symphonies, No.3 in E flat major, the first of his symphonies to top 10 minutes, immediately showing a growth in confidence and compositional maturity over the two earlier five minute symphonies. The Mannheim techniques mentioned earlier are immediately identifiable here. Listen out for the almost constant use of chords on the harpsichord, often doubled or extended by the lower strings, as well as the long crescendos in the first movement held by the woodwind and brass. It is hard not to mention the way Fisher breaks away from earlier Baroque techniques to really demonstrate the abilities of the oboe as a solo instrument, most obviously heard towards the beginning and end of the first movement. What really struck me about the 3rd Symphony was Fisher’s deliciously lyrical and poised first violin theme in the second movement, with the alternating rising and lowering ends of phrases embellishing the melody with a careful balance between suspense, satisfaction, and anticipation. This is also a testament to Micheal Halász’s interpretation of the score and direction of the orchestra, I might add. The functional yet engaging bass line supports and compliments the theme and the oboe breaks away from the accompanying instruments to answer some phrases with occasional melodies of its own.
The 1776 review I mentioned at the start also commented that ‘several of [his] airs would not disgrace the Italian master’, and I cannot think of a better way to finish this review than to wholeheartedly agree. These symphonies are flawlessly performed, engagingly conducted and rarely recorded, so this CD presents a rare opportunity to explore the music of one of Britains great composers who has slipped through the net of mainstream listening for too long.