Edwin Fischer (piano)
The complete Brahms, Schubert & Schumann studio recordings
APR 7314 [3 CDs: 209]
This release features recordings of composers central to the repertoire of the Swiss pianist Edwin Fischer (1886-1960). Discs 1 and 2 have been newly transferred by Andrew Hallifax. The Schubert Impromptus on Disc 3 were transferred earlier by Bryan Crimp, and have here been remastered by Hallifax, improving them even further.
Fischer was not only one of the great pianists of the twentieth century, but was distinguished pedagogue and conductor. His initial studies were in Basel, Switzerland, and he later progressed to the Stern Conservatory in Berlin, where he studied with Martin Krause, one of Liszt’s last students. Renowned for his interpretations of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms, he made the first complete recording of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier in the 1930s. In 1932 he formed his own chamber orchestra and returned to the classical norm of conducting from the keyboard. His pre-war Schubert recordings are perhaps his best known here. The Brahms group dates from 1947, with the wartime Piano Quartet No. 1 being something of a rarity. The Schumann Fantasy set down in May 1949 is, surprisingly, his only recording of that composer’s solo music. It was a work he described as “a symbol of the soul of the piano”.
By far the lion’s share of this 3 CD set is devoted to the pianist’s Schubert recordings, namely the Moments musicaux, the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy and the two sets of Impromptus. It was the latter which Alfred Brendel, a one-time student of the pianist, cited as examples of Fischer at his best. Great as the recordings of the other composers are, the Schubert recordings eclipse them. Not only are they informed by insight and imagination, but they have a compelling sense of inevitability, sounding freely improvised. One comes away feeling that there’s no other way. Schubert’s Moments musicaux collectively form an attractive six-movement suite. No. 2, an A flat Andantino, has some exquisitely voiced chords, whilst No. 3 contrasts with its playful lightness. No. 5 is rhythmically propulsive, with the contrasting No. 6 reverential and contained and not pandering to sentimentality.
The Schubert Impromptus in Fischer’s hands are notable for their emotional restraint. No. 2 in E flat flows freely and is cleanly articulated. The G flat which follows has a seductive charm, and the middle section of No. 4 has a glut of power and passion. The second set D935 opens arrestingly with the F minor Impromptu, where Beethovenian drama alternates with flowing lyricism. The A flat (no. 2) is marked by refined elegance and simplicity. The 3rd Impromptu on the ‘Rosamunde’ theme is a delight, with each variation sensitively sculpted. No 4 in F minor, in the Hungarian-style, certainly isn’t wanting in vitality and rhythmic energy. There’s a compelling sense of unity between the various sections of the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy. Fischer sustains the line throughout, allowing the lyrical sections to breath and the more dramatic sections to register their mark. You certainly won't be disappointed.
Fischer approaches Schumann through the eyes of a poet. This 1949 inscription of the Fantasie in C major is magnificent in every respect. The opening movement is rhapsodic and passionate, informed by rhetorical grandeur. The treacherous leaping skips in the coda of the middle movement are clean and secure. The last movement transports us to another world of meditation, calmness and dreams.
Chamber music featured prominently throughout Fischer’s career. He formed his own trio with the cellist Enrico Mainardi and the violinist Georg Kulenkampff, (who was replaced by Wolfgang Schneiderhan after Kulenkampff's death). His sole commercial outing in the studio with a chamber group is the recording of the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, made six days after the outbreak of World War 11. Its scarcity is explained by the fact that it was only released in Germany. His collaborators are members of his Chamber Orchestra. The performance’s success is largely the result of the group’s singularity of vision. Added to that, Fischer was not one for grandstanding. The Intermezzo has a spectral glow, whilst the slow movement boasts great nobility, the group bringing depth and gravitas to the music’s rich textures. The ‘Hungarian’ finale is dispatched with gusto and panache.
In Fischer’s time, the solo works of Brahms weren’t as familiar as they are today, and the pianist was something of a pioneer in this regard. He programmed the Sonata No. 3 in F minor frequently throughout his career. Percy Grainger and Harold Bauer had already set down the mammoth work in the studio, and Rubinstein was to follow Fischer a fortnight later. Fisher’s reading dates from 30 May 1949. The opening movement is one of grandeur, and one gets a sense of the unfolding drama. In the Andante espressivo which follows, Fisher conjures up some ethereal hues. The Scherzo is dark and dramatic, where diablerie and roister are projected. The Intermezzo, which is haunting, is capped off with a gnarly dance of death finale.
The pianist never programmed that many of Brahms’ solo pieces. There’s a welcome group of four here from February 1947. As a group, they’re both stylish and idiomatic. I’d particularly single out the Intermezzo in B flat minor, Op. 117 No. 2 for its poetry and flowing smoothness.
I can give this wonderful collection a warm welcome and hearty recommendation. It’s a magnificent testimony to the sublime artistry of a great pianist. The recordings, newly refurbished, receive a new lease of life, and can be savoured at their finest. The accompanying liner is above reproach. The set’s excellent value will give several hours of pleasure, especially to those who appreciate fine pianism informed by impeccable musicianship.
Intermezzi (3), op.117
» no.1 in E flat major
» no.2 in B flat minor
Klavierstucke (6), op.118
» no.3 Ballade in G minor
Piano Quartet no.1 in G minor, op.25
Piano Sonata no.3 in F minor, op.5
Rhapsodies (2), op.79
» no.2 in G minor
Fantasie in C major, D760 'Wanderer'
Impromptus (4), op.90 D899
Impromptus (4), op.142 D935
Moments musicaux (6), op.94 D780
Fantasie in C major, op.17
Vittorio Brero (violin)
Rudolf Nel (viola)
Theo Schurgers (cello)