After a strong, slightly measured opening flourish, Joseph Keilberth
manages a very eloquent statement of the hymn-like main theme.
And then Annie Fischer enters. Listen to her play the repeated
chords that make the third and fourth notes of the theme, and
you may think you’ve never before heard them played with
such tender wistfulness.
Another key moment is the start of the development. Keilberth
has brought things to a head with a fine vitality, then as Fischer
re-enters the scene is transformed into the most inward, twilight
poetry. But the great thing is that Keilberth and the orchestra
clearly realise something special is happening and are caught
up in the rapt mood.
Do not think, though, that this performance is all hushed half-tones.
There is plenty of fire when needed and the cadenza is rightly
made the climax - structural as well as emotional - of the movement.
It struck me that perhaps only in this concerto and the fifth
Bach Brandenburg is the cadenza so completely integrated into
the movement, forming the apex of its emotional arch. And, as
it happens, not so long ago I was listening to a wonderful performance
of the Bach by Annie Fischer and Otto Klemperer (GHCD 2360).
Most performances of the second movement seem too fast and restless
to me - more Allegretto than Andantino. So I loved every moment
of Annie Fischer’s expansive, relaxed treatment. The sumptuous
themes in the middle section belong mainly to the orchestra,
and happily Keilberth seems fully agreed to take his time over
In the finale we find that it was not just Klemperer’s
influence that resulted in a rather slow tempo in the famous
EMI recording - this was clearly Fischer’s way with it.
By combination, I had recently been listening to Boult conducting
the first movement of Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony, where
he takes an extraordinarily fast tempo, too fast for me. I felt
that he was doing everything in his very considerable powers
to make his tempo convincing. Everything, that is, except slow
down a tad, which might have been the best thing of all. Here
we seem to have the exactly opposite case. Having chosen a tempo
that is surely just a bit too slow, Fischer does everything
she can - and she does some truly lovely things - to make it
work. Except speeding it up a tad.
I must however point to one moment that justifies everything.
After the orchestra has stated the syncopated, staccato, stalking
second theme, most pianists seem uncertain whether to repeat
it in the same manner. Fischer takes it into another world with
her subtle, withdrawn poetry. The steady main tempo does mean
that the coda can be considerably faster without becoming manic.
The sound is decent 1950s mono and the Cologne orchestra was
not the world’s finest. Keilberth himself was more interested
in feeling and atmosphere - which he certainly gets - than discipline
as such and there are some ragged moments. A small price to
pay when such poetry is on offer.
Never happy in the recording studio, Annie Fischer spent the
last fifteen years of her life mulling over a Beethoven sonata
cycle for Hungaroton. She never approved it for release and
it was issued posthumously. According to the booklet-note writer
David Threasher the performances “reveal an unparalleled
depth of engagement with this music”. Not everyone was
convinced, feeling that, for all its insights, the playing lacked
the spontaneity of her concert performances. I suppose that,
if you’ve read about how she agonized over them and then
listen to them, you risk hearing them that way. I haven’t
heard them so I merely point out that they have drawn conflicting
I should be most surprised, though, if anyone were to express
reservations over the Beethoven on offer here. The “Eroica”
Variations emphasize the verve and ebullience of early Beethoven,
each variation characterized sharply and the fugue bringing
it to a fine conclusion without trying to pretend it’s
the “Eroica” Symphony - a later and more earth-shattering
The pure gold here is op.109. This is a superb demonstration
of how to bring the notes off the page, drawing the listener
up in each paragraph, erupting in the scherzo and gradually
reaching the highest spiritual plane in the last movement, all
in the context of a luminous sound and a natural musicality.
Nothing is forced, but nor is anything held back. It would be
dangerous to say this is the finest performance I’ve heard
of the work but right now, under its spell, I don’t recall
a better, more complete one.
Annie Fischer’s exclusion from Philips’ mammoth
“Great Pianists” series was always one of its more
controversial decisions. Yet, until now, if anyone had asked
me to name a performance that indisputably proved her right
to be there, I would have had some difficulty. Even her much-lauded
Mozart concerto series, including the two with the young Sawallisch,
had seemed to me very, very good, but great? I wasn’t
So here, in op.109 but with the rest of the disc not far behind,
is the proof she was great. I hope ICA are actively searching
out more live material of this quality. Incidentally, though
these seem to be live broadcasts, that is to say played straight
through without interruption, was there actually an audience?
I hear no evidence of one.
Masterwork Index: Schumann
piano concerto ~~ Beethoven