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Norma Fisher at the BBC - Volume 1
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Variations on an Original Theme, Op.21 No.1 (1857) [20:52]
Variations on a Hungarian Song, Op.21 No.2 (1853) [7:30]
Alexander SCRIABIN (1871-1915)
Eight Etudes, Op.42 (1903): No.1 in D flat major [1:54]: No.4 in F sharp major [2:31]: No.5 in C sharp minor [3:00]: No.8 in E flat major [1:58]
Piano Sonata No.1 in F minor, Op.6 (1892) [25:52]
Norma Fisher (piano)
rec. 1972 (Scriabin) and 1979 (Brahms), BBC studios
Stereo tapes

The British pianist Norma Fisher was born in 1940 and studied with Sidney Harrison, Ilona Kabos and Jacques Février. She won second prize at the 1961 Busoni Competition and shared the 1963 Harriet Cohen International music Award with Vladimir Ashkenazy. Her career was international, she appeared at the Proms in the 60s, and was, in time, to become a leading exponent of the music of André Tchaikovsky but focal dystonia in her right arm ended her performing career in the 1990s. Thereafter she became an admired teacher.

Unlike her slightly older contemporaries – such as John Ogdon and Bernard Roberts, to select almost at random - she has no commercial discography but BBC broadcast performances do survive in some form or other. In this impressive release there are examples of cassette tapes taken from radio broadcasts and also, in the case of the Scriabin sonata, a master tape itself, drawn from BBC Archives.

The most recent examples of her playing come from a 1979 Radio 3 programme called ‘Brahms and Debussy’. The track listing points out the occasional demerits of the recording and these include some electromagnetic noise and occasional dropouts, perhaps inevitable corollaries of the recording setup. You’ll notice this most conspicuously at around 2:33 into the Variations on an Original Theme but it recurs very infrequently and it does not prove a distraction – and there’s no audible high-level hiss, which is a blessing, and which attests to fine restoration work.

The recording was made in the Maida Vale studios and offers an excellent example of Fisher’s unshowy and deeply musical playing. If the Variations is considered something of an ugly duckling, Fisher doesn’t play it as such. Instead there’s a strong sense of identification with its moments of nobility and warmth and its dramatic profile too. A few minor slips show her committed intensity and though the sound, as such, doesn’t fully preserve the range of her tone, enough can be heard to attest to her profoundly satisfying interpretation. By comparison its opus stable-mate, the Variations on a Hungarian Song, offers Brahms with his waistcoat wide open, cigar ash a-flying, a quality Fisher relishes from the evidence of this suitably unbuttoned reading, though she is thoughtful in its more introspective moments.

The Scriabin recital was broadcast in February 1972 and was part of an extensive centenary celebration which involved a number of other pianists, including Ogdon. She plays four of the Op.42 Etudes, preserved on a reel-to-reel tape in the pianist’s own possession. The quartet of Etudes offers considerable opportunities for contrast and characterisation, from the rippling-brook clarity of the first, the warm lyricism of the fourth and the commanding storminess of the eighth. The First Sonata exemplifies her structural and architectural powers of concentration as well as digital excellence. The BBC master tape sounds good and from the very start, in which she establishes a vitalising rhythm, this is a performance full of charge and bite but in the finale a requisite solemnity and tolling power.

The notes, by Bryce Morrison and producer Tomoyuki Sawado, are in English and Japanese and reveal the breadth of Fisher’s musical life. This is the first volume in a series and it has opened auspiciously.

Jonathan Woolf

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