Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Concerto in A minor op.54 [31:52]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Variations and Fugue on an Original Theme op.35 - “Eroica” [23:04]
Sonata in E op.109 [18:23]
Annie Fischer (piano)
Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra/Joseph Keilberth
rec. 28 April 1958 (Schumann) and 11 February 1957 (Beethoven), Saal 1, Funkhaus, Cologne, Germany
ICA CLASSICS ICAC 5062 [73:19]
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 them.
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 opinions.
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 work.
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 sure.
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.
Christopher Howell
A chance to hear Annie Fischer, not always at her happiest in the studio, in truly great form in live broadcasts. 

Masterwork Index: Schumann piano concerto ~~ Beethoven sonata 30