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Norma Fisher at the BBC - Volume 2
Norma Fisher (piano)
rec. 1969-85
SONETTO CLASSICS SONCLA004 [57:57 + 56:45]

Listening to this marvellous music, I have to wonder how I managed to miss hearing Norma Fisher as I grew up with BBC Radio 3 soaking into my eager teenage brain. Fisher, taught and mentored by such greats as Ilona Kabos, Gina Bachauer and Annie Fischer, recorded extensively for the BBC until focal dystonia halted that aspect of her career in the 1990s. Sonetto Classics have already issued one volume, pieces by Brahms and Skriabin. It was well received by Jonathan Woolf (review). I echo his praises in my appreciation of this second volume.

Disc one is devoted to Franz Liszt. Fisher's performances are remarkable for their commitment, focus, passion and musicality. I can safely say that I have enjoyed this disc as much as almost any Liszt playing I have heard. The opening item, the first Mephisto Waltz, could stand as an example of all the playing here. A keen sense of drama, dynamics judged and shaded to a fault, intense and gripping climaxes, and all technical difficulties overcome with consummate ease. Fisher clearly feels at home in this repertoire. Clarity of texture shines through even the most challenging episodes, and she never produces an ugly sound. Her way with the two Transcendental Études leaves me wanting to hear more from the set. The final item is almost an encore, and a delicious one at that. Liszt’s transcription of Schubert's song Horch, horch die Lerch was a favourite of pianists of yesteryear; I have recordings by Paderewski, Moiseiwitsch, Goodman, Hambourg, Arrau and Godowsky, amongst others. Fisher’s account, poised and elegant, rounds off the disc nicely.

Disc two is just as successful. Schumann’s second Sonata is interesting in that Fisher plays his original finale. At Clara Schumann’s suggestion, he replaced this Presto passionato with a Rondo. Presto passionato, not so technically difficult, was published later as a stand-alone work. It sounds marvellous in context.

The review of volume one mentions that Fisher became a leading exponent of the music of André Tchaikowsky. The second disc closes with his Inventions Op. 2. Ten were written between 1961 and 1963, and published in 1975 though by then Tchaikowsky had replaced the fifth Invention with a new piece. Fisher chose to include the unpublished number in her performance, so there are eleven Inventions here. Each of the pieces is dedicated to one of Tchaikowsky’s long-suffering friends. They probably tell more about his relationship with each of the dedicatees than they do about their individual characters. The style is often terse and edgy; there are strong echoes of Bartók, Schoenberg and Hindemith in the sometimes atonal contrapuntal writing; repeating rhythmic patterns are a feature.

The first Invention has a music-box character, the second a declamatory melody over sharp, jagged chords. The next two are faster numbers, a hypnotically nightmarish study. and a toccata in fast scales and repeated notes. The high, atmospheric chords that open and close the published fifth number bookend a central section with a searching, uncertain feel. The original fifth is an enigmatic waltz that would not be out of place in Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives. The sixth has a puckish humour whilst the seventh is a little atonal scherzo that builds in complexity. The jaunty bagatelle, number eight of the set, is followed by an acerbic moto perpetuo. At over six minutes, the final invention is a good deal longer than any of the others. Dedicated to Tchaikowsky’s former lover Michael Riddall, it is a gentle dialogue, full of mystery, that brings the set to a calm conclusion. Though I cannot profess any great affection for the collection, I can neither deny their craft nor find fault with the pianism.

I am grateful to Sonetto Classics for introducing me to Norma Fisher’s art. I would recommend this album to any lover of fine piano playing. The sound is mostly excellent, and I have noticed none of the drop-outs or electrical interference that was present in the first volume. The Debussy items are not in such good sound but it does not distract from these impressive readings.

Rob Challinor

Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Mephisto waltz 1 (1859-61)[11:25]
Années de Pèlerinage, supplement aux Années de Pèlerinage 2de Volume: Venezia e Napoli (1859)
I Gondoliera [5:39]
II Canzone [3:39]
III Tarantella [9:47]
Études d'exécution transcendente (1851)
10 F minor, allegro agitato molto [5:03]
4 D minor, Mazeppa [7:47]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921) arr. Franz LISZT
Danse macabre (1876)[11:13]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828) arr. Franz LISZT
Lieder der Schubert No.9, Ständchen (Horch, horch die Lerch) (1837-38)[3:24]

Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Sonata 2 in G minor, Op.22 (1833-35) with original finale [20:57]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Douze Études (1915)
Book 1/No.1 Pour les “cinq doigts”- d'après Monsieur Czerny [3:50]
Book 2/No.7 Pour les degrés chromatiques [2:18]
Book 2/No. 11 Pour des arpèges composés [5:33]
André TCHAIKOWSKY (1935-1982)
Inventions op2 (1961-62)
Invention 1 Peter Feuchtwenger [1:30]
Invention 2 Fou Ts'ong [1:37]
Invention 3 Ilona Kabos [0:52]
Invention 4 Robert Cornford [1:22]
Invention 5b Patrick Crommelynck [2:36]
Invention 6 Stefan Askenase [2:38]
Invention 5b Charles and Lydia Napper [2:27]
Invention 7 Tamás Vásáry [2:09]
Invention 8 Sheldon and Alicia Rich [1:10]
Invention 9 Wendy – or Beatrice? - Harthan [1:28]
Invention 10 Michael Riddall [6:18]

Liszt Mephisto waltz 1, Venezia e Napoli, Études rec. 1985 BBC Bristol 1st broadcast 24-05-1985
Saint-Saëns/Liszt, Schubert/Liszt rec. 1969-70 BBC Maida Vale 1st broadcast 15-08-1970
Schumann, Tchaikowsky rec. 1984 BBC Maida Vale 1st broadcast 01-03-1984
Debussy rec. 1979 BBC Maida Vale 1st broadcast 02-02-1979

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