Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Sonatas (complete)
Annie Fischer (pn)
HUNGAROTON 31626-34 (9 CDs: 600:45)
My greatest pleasure as a listener is to discover someone I’ve either overlooked or taken for granted who overwhelms me with interpretive genius. Annie Fischer is one of these, and her Beethoven set so overwhelmed me that it has since pushed all my other favorites into the shade.
Partly because of her status as a Hungarian pianist who didn’t travel very often outside her homeland,
partly due to her abhorrence of recording, and partly due to her being a woman, Fischer was barely known in America and only slightly better known in England during the prime decades of her career. She shunned publicity of any sort, particularly the media machine that made monstrous worldwide stars of such pianists as Rachmaninoff, Rubinstein, Horowitz, Arrau, Cliburn, and Backhaus. At her concerts she generally wore plain, single-color shifts, her hair pulled back in a severe bun, and no makeup. By the 1970s, however, her star had slowly risen thanks to the fact that she was still concertizing while most of the others were either deceased or in temporary retirement. Only then was her greatness noticed internationally, and Hungaroton approached her for the biggest recording project of her life.
Fischer had just given not one but two series of recitals—one for a youth audience and one for adults—in which she played all 32 Beethoven sonatas. Hungaroton asked her if she would record the sonatas; she could have as many sessions as she wanted, take as much time as she wanted, and if she didn’t like the results they wouldn’t be issued. Fischer agreed on those terms. All the sonatas were recorded during 1977–78, then the pianist began to seriously relisten to them and suggest different means of expression, different ways of phrasing certain passages, and record inserts to various movements of the different sonatas. Every few years, she would give her approval to have some of the sonatas issued, but each time she would call back a few days later and rescind her approval. More inserts were recorded, on and on, over a period of 15 years; more sonatas were approved for release and then withdrawn; and then, finally, Fischer died in 1995, bringing an end to a long and expensive project.
Some time later, Hungaroton decided to release the entire series. Typically of record companies, it didn’t arrange them in chronological or musical order, but patched CDs together consisting of early, middle, and late sonatas. Reviews were mixed. Alexander J. Morin, the former chief music critic of the
Los Angeles Times,
felt that Fischer’s complete set was the closest to being a perfect survey of all 32 sonatas, but others either praised only parts of it or felt that Fischer’s continual tampering with inserts had damaged the integrity of the musical line. There seemed, to them, to be too much rhetorical phrasing and too many times when Fischer’s musical mind changed course and suddenly veered off the steady pulse only to create another reason for an insert.
didn’t like the set, complaining of a lack of poetry.
But to me, Fischer provides plenty of musical poetry, specifically in those magical slow movements of the “Pathétique,” “Les Adieux,” and “Hammerklavier” sonatas. There is a fine combination of poetry and deep-searching angst in the great last sonatas (30–32). She played Beethoven’s music in this style as far back as the early 1950s. I have in my hand her 1954 Supraphon recording of the “Waldstein” (No. 21), and can tell you that her phrasing was virtually the same … also that she made inserts in
recording, too, and tape splicing in 1954 wasn’t anywhere near as sophisticated as the digital editing of the late 1980s and early ’90s. Another complaint, possibly picked up from Hungaroton’s liner notes, was that she “probably” only played the “name sonatas” before her double set of all-Beethoven concerts, but I also own a 1957 live performance of Fischer playing Sonata No. 30, and there are other live performances of Sonatas No. 7 and 16, none of which have titles.
The real problem with this set, then as now, is the sound of her piano. I’m guessing that Fischer got a Bösendorfer grand (I’m not sure if it was an “Imperial Grand,” which has a few extra notes in the bass range) around the time she launched her career in the 1930s, and that she pounded the hell out of it. Now, there are two things you need to know about Bösendorfers. The first is that it has the easiest action of any standard piano brand—when you touch a key, your finger sinks right down to the bottom of the fingerboard—which obviously helped someone like Fischer, who was not a large woman and did not have really huge hands (though her fingers were longer than average for someone her size). The second is that, if you play it lightly, it has a very pearly tone quality. (Listen to any of Gianluca Luisi’s magnificent recordings, particularly Bach’s
, which are also played on a Bösendorfer.) But Fischer was not a reticent pianist when large, bold climaxes were called for. She attacked the keys with a vehemence that belied her fragile appearance. Some of those who saw her play said that it looked as though she were wrestling the piano, and you can see this in many of her YouTube videos.
Thus, by the time she recorded this set and rerecorded the inserts, her Bösendorfer had become very tinny, even after repeated retunings. It was also recorded close to the microphone (sometimes you can hear the hammers striking and the strings vibrating with unnerving clarity), played with a judicious use of pedal and a claustrophobic acoustic. Oddly, this sound resembles nothing so much as a Broadwood fortepiano of Beethoven’s time played with great force. I could not escape the feeling that Fischer’s Beethoven cycle was like a Glenn Gould recording project (and Gould, too, was very brand-loyal when it came to pianos, preferring his specific model Steinway CD318 that even developed a “hiccup” in the mid 1960s), where a very demanding and highly self-critical performer kept on second-guessing herself, yet in nearly every instance her inserts worked. Those who are used to, and prefer, a strictly linear and straightforward reading of the sonatas are therefore directed elsewhere.
And why, exactly, are Beethoven’s sonatas so difficult to perform properly? Any serious musician who has honestly tried to play the music the way it is written—and yes, this includes the Schirmer edition of the scores, which happen to be the ones most pianists of the 20th century used—will tell you that, unlike the symphonies or even the string quartets (except for some of the middle and later quartets), Beethoven’s piano sonatas are full of abrupt, surprising, and often contradictory changes in tempo and phrasing. Even if you take the scores from the urtext edition (which I read through once), such instructions are there. And it so happens that the Schirmer edition was prepared and edited by three master musicians, only one of whom is still famous today, and that is Hans von Bülow. He revised and edited the opp. 13, 26, 27, and op. 31 No. 3 sonatas, as well as all those from op. 53 (“Waldstein”) to the end, 17 in all. Sigmund Lebert, founder of the Stuttgart Music School in 1857, prepared the remaining 15 with the assistance of Immanuel Faisst. (Lebert and Faisst, working with Franz Liszt and Ignaz Lachner, also edited arrangements of piano works by Mozart.)
One of the virtues of the Schirmer edition is the large number of detailed instructions in the footnotes, sometimes missing for pages on end but generally in plentitude. And what you keep reading, over and over, are anomalies of phrasing not only encountered by von Bülow and Lebert but passed down from Beethoven’s pupils, indicating that these abrupt changes in tempo, phrasing, and dynamics were not merely meant to not be glossed over, but that they provide numerous pitfalls for the unwary performer who thinks they are merely suggestions or that they can be minimized to such a point where they are minor bumps in the road to a steady rhythm. To give some examples, look at the first two pages of the “easy” movement of the “Pathétique” sonata, the second. Even in the music itself there are numerous expression markings like
sempre legatissimo, espressivo, poco meno piano, diminuendo, tenuto, slentando,
often in rapid succession and with
instructions such as
along with numerous markings for adding and removing pedal. Lebert’s footnotes on these two pages are likewise detailed and give further instructions for modifications, as follows:
“The first middle section of the Rondo (for such this
is in form) may be taken slightly
i.e., slower, but no more so than needful (so as not to drag), and therefore only in a few places.”
“The turns in this and the next measure should not commence with, but immediately after [follow], a 16th note in the bass.”
“A tasteful execution of this grace [note] is impossible in strict time. An abbreviation of the first two principal notes (C and B?) being quite as impracticable as a shifting of the inverted mordent into the preceding measure as an unaccented appoggiatura, the measure must simply be extended by an additional 32nd note.”
“In this repetition of the theme, the left hand may be allowed to play a more expressive part; and, on the whole, a somewhat lighter shading of the melody is now admissible by way of contrast to the following [gloomier] middle section.”
Those aren’t the
instructions here—and that’s just
Thus you can see where even the finest of Beethoven interpreters need to combine the virtues of several different pianists in order to accomplish this almost superhuman feat of playing all 32 sonatas in the proper style and spirit. You need the excitement of a Russell Sherman or a Craig Sheppard, the willingness to bend the tempo almost consistently of Artur Schnabel, the singing legato of a Wilhelm Backhaus or a John O’Conor, and something else, a sense of both deep spiritual communication and an almost clumsy, peasant-like sense of humor, with which Beethoven’s music abounds.
Schnabel was the first to record all 32 sonatas, and it was fortuitous for posterity that he was also considered the major Beethoven interpreter of his time as well as a highly intellectual musician. He was well versed in all styles of music from the Baroque to the modern (and, as we know, he was also an excellent composer in the modern style) to give in to “sloppy tradition” in his performances of these sonatas, but he also did not shy away from the rhetorical phrasing and sharp contrasts of dynamics (these sonatas are full of sudden shifts from
or vice-versa) that the scores demanded. Ironically, following Schnabel’s groundbreaking effort came numerous Beethoven sonata recordings, complete or simply in bunches, from pianists who tried to do exactly that, to force the numerous and sudden shifts in Beethoven’s scores into stricter tempos with less jarring results. Small wonder, then, that when Van Cliburn came along in the 1960s and picked up where Schnabel left off in the sonatas he recorded, he was picked on by many critics for being quirky when in fact he was merely following the scores and being imaginative. Sherman and Sheppard temporarily turned things around, but neither has been anywhere near as successful in the majority of the 32 sonatas as Fischer. Most modern recordings that I’ve heard, at any rate, tend to be annoyingly regular and undramatic.
Once you grasp the immensity of Fischer’s achievement you’re in for an experience unlike any other. For she doesn’t just invite you to listen; she demands your undivided attention. I began listening to one of the discs while reading something, but found I could not concentrate on reading. Fischer kept striking me in such a way that I just listened, open-mouthed, in awe as I heard these sonatas come to life in a way that only Schnabel and Sheppard have done—and she had a better technique (and sound) than Schnabel, and was more consistently brisk in the earlier sonatas than Sheppard.
I don’t have enough space to tell you how great this set is, but I can give you some indications of what I enjoy, for instance her “Hammerklavier,” where she slows down each movement by about 10 percent—just enough to make the first movement sound like less of a scramble for notes, as Schnabel did, but also so she can elongate the exquisite lines of the Adagio to create, as Sheppard did, an extraordinary piece of musical architecture, or the way she plays the first movement of op. 31 No. 2, one of Beethoven’s funniest sonatas. Here Beethoven jumps right out with a quirky opening passage that doesn’t sound like a melody at all, but like he’s beginning in the middle of the development section, then he has the pianist play a staccato passage with both hands out of synch, and then finally comes up with a short but bouncy little melody that, it turns out, is merely a bridge back to the odd running scale passage. So many pianists play this straight-faced, as if every note and gesture were a revelation from heaven. Fischer realizes that Beethoven is putting us on.
As for the question of whether it was ethical for Hungaroton to issue this set even though Fischer didn’t approve any of the sonatas, I will say this: Fischer
to understand the realities of a recording company, that they weren’t paying her an exorbitant fee and giving her studio time over 15 years just to have the records rot in a vault. She had to know, at some level, that these recordings
going to come out sooner or later, probably posthumously. I believe Fischer wanted them to be her last musical will and testament. She was probably hoping they’d come out posthumously to show her views on the music without being around to suffer the indignity of any negative reviews.
I have searched the Internet but have not discovered any place where the full boxed set (Hungaroton 41003) is still available, except used on Amazon for $200, yet oddly enough the nine single discs do appear to be available—some on ArkivMusic and others on Amazon. If you love the Beethoven sonatas, you simply cannot miss this set. No one other than Schnabel even comes close.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Works on This Recording
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