Top Ear

Annie Fischer: Icon

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Leonard Ip writes (translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Lee)

Annie Fischer (1914-1995) is one of the greatest pianists in the 20th century, but despite this she’s generally not what you’d call famous. I don’t understand why, because one just needs to have a short listen to her recordings to realize that her performances are as great as any of the more famous pianists. Some say her relative lack of fame is because she enjoyed neither touring nor recording, and because she’s a woman (oh how times have changed…)—I can only express my great regret. Cognoscenti have revered Fischer’s Hungaroton recordings, especially her Beethoven sonata cycle, but it turns out that her recordings in EMI’s vaults amount to a considerable 8CDs, and what’s more, the quality of the recording is consistently good and the playing superb. This Icon set is stacking up to be great news for music-lovers.

Fischer, a Hungarian, was taught by Ernst von Dohnanyi and was equally adept and sympathetic to both the Austro-Germanic and Hungarian (eg. Liszt, Bartók) repertoire. This set quite comprehensively contains both styles of music: Mozart’s Piano Concerts Nos. 20-23, 24 and 27, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Nos. 8, 14, 18, 21, 24, 30 and 32, Schubert’s Piano Sonata D960 and two Impromptus, the Schumann Piano Concerto, Fantasie, Carnaval, Kinderszenen and Kreisleriana, Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Besides the two Schubert Impromptus, these are all major and large-scale works, and most importantly, none of the works here are unfamiliar to Fischer. The average quality of these recordings are amazingly high and would put many other pianists to shame, and in fact many of these recordings could easily become the “reference recording” of the respective piece (i.e. if you are only going to hear one recording of the piece, this is it). This includes all 6 of the Mozart Concerti, a few of the Beethoven Sonatas, Schubert’s D960 and Schumann’s Kreisleriana.

As a Beethovenian, Fischer is generally more romantic than Gilels or Backhaus, but when it comes to the angsty and conflicting episodes she is more in control than the explosive and volatile Serkin. These EMI Beethoven recordings were recorded in the 1950s, and there are a few sonatas, such as the 8th, which Fischer remade with more spontaneity for Hungaroton in the 1960s. Despite this, these performances are infused with a thorough understanding of and an extraordinary sympathy to the score (No. 14, 18 and 32 are particularly outstanding). Fischer’s Mozart Piano Concertos gave me the feeling that she is a very terse person, but whatever she says is extremely to-the-point. Her tone painting in the most minute of details is exquisite: listen to how she opts for extremely sparse pedal and an isolated touch in the development of the first movement of the 21st, and as the movement proceeds to the slowly modulating sixteenths in both hands, Fischer keeps a controlled piano while imbuing the top voice with such a beautiful legato that it sounds almost like a completely isolated part. This is not only a technical achievement, but also a musical one: the scent of poignancy has rarely felt so warm and sympathetic. Stylistically appropriate yet so full of feeling, Fischer’s Mozart is undoubtedly one of her greatest achievements.

The two Schubert Impromptus recorded here (D935 No. 2 and 4) made me wonder why she didn’t record the remainder. Fischer’s more classical approach brings a stronger directional sense to Schubert’s expressive melodies. D960, often an introspective meditation under other pianists’ hands, is full of impetus under Fischer, resulting in one of the quicker renditions of this piece (the first movement, without repeat, takes 12:55). It is not a romantic reading, but her fluent and passionate phrasing is extremely moving. Worthy of note is the recapitulation in the Andante Sostenuto where Fischer interestingly modifies the score and complicates the rhythms in the left hand figurations, resulting in greater ominousness. Sometimes, however, I feel that Fischer is being a bit too neurotic at times and lacking in lightheartedness. The Schumann Fantasie is a case in point: extremely intense, but a bit humorless. The best balance occurs in Kreisleriana: a passionate performance full of expressivity and richness, and vividly imaginative in terms of playing.

Otto Klemperer assumes the Philharmonia’s helm in the Liszt and Schumann concertos (therefore it has been reissued in Klemperer’s Concerto Recordings box), and while he tends to bring out the music’s heaviness and solidity, this approach has no conflict with Fischer’s. This synergy generates persuasiveness in the Schumann and technical fireworks in the Liszt. Fischer’s Bartok 3rd (accompanied by Markevitch/LSO) is quite heavy-handed, and despite the strong percussivity Fischer never turns harsh; instead she is delightfully nimble and sharp.

If we can encapsulate Fischer’s art in one word, it would be “intensity”. If we add more word to that, it would be “reserved intensity”. Whatever Fischer plays, her style is basically the same: forceful phrasing, great concentration, outwardly simple emotions propelled by fiery expressivity. Fischer tells us clearly that we should never think female pianists are in any way equal to “gentle”—long before Argerich, Fischer has displayed that the music making of females can even out-masculine males. Hungaroton and BBC Legends both host some fascinating Fischer recordings (I would hereby like to recommend her intoxicating set of Beethoven sonatas again), but this Icon set is similarly of great representativeness and quality.

Details

  • Album name:  Annie Fischer: The Complete London Studio Recordings
  • Performers:  Annie Fischer (piano);  Schumannn/Liszt Concertos:  Otto Klemperer (conductor);  Philharmonia Orchestra; Bartok Concerto No. 3: Igor Markevitch (conductor); London Symphony Orchestra
  • Label:  Warner 2564 63412-3
  • Sonics:  Mono/Stereo ADD
  • Total playing time:  9:00:22
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Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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