SCHUMANN: Piano Concerto in a minor, Op. 54; BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 19 – Annie Fischer, piano/Philharmonia Orch./ Carlo Maria Giulini (Schumann)/ Leon Fleisher, piano/ Swiss Festival Orch./ George Szell – Audite 95.643, 60:01 (8/15) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Both Hungarian virtuoso Annie Fischer (1914-1995) and American pianist Leon Fleisher (b. 1928) make their respective debuts at the Lucerne Festival on this disc. Fischer appears with Carlo Maria Giulini (3 September 1960) in the 1845 Piano Concerto of Robert Schumann, a composer for whom Fischer always expressed a grand affection.  Conductor Giulini nurtured a thoroughly collaborative approach with his multifarious soloists, and his work here with the Philharmonia Orchestra of London proves indicative of his sensitive support.

The leisurely first movement – whose motto theme institutes a musical anagram for “Chiara” from the Carnaval suite – insists on the dreamy, Eusebius side of the composer’s personality. The meditative, chamber-music evolution of the Allegro affetuoso – with each theme being repeated twice in instrumental symmetry – captures the spirit of romantic reverie throughout. Giulini gives his gifted Philharmonia woodwinds their full share of interwoven magic. The maerchen sensibility in Schumann’s march tempos suffuses the Andante espesssivo development section.  Fischer’s cadenza, polyphonic and exalted at once, exerts a fine trill and voluptuous, passing scalar runs. The galloping coda has the audience breathless, the feet tapping the stunning final cadence. The Intermezzo: Andantino grazioso dissolves in tempo into a spun adagio supported by an ardent cello line. The air of delicate mystery extends into the transition to the Allegro vivace finale, played more as a schwung-driven moderato than as a bravura tempest. Less monolithic than Fischer’s Schumann with the same orchestral forces under Otto Klemperer, this Giulini reading has buoyancy, and a decidedly youthful zest. Fischer justifies her accolade from Andras Schiff, who proclaimed that he had “never heard more poetic playing in my life.”

Leon Fleisher appears (29 August 1962) with George Szell (1897-1973), with whom he made numerous recordings for CBS, prior to the onset of focal dystonia, which incapacitated his right hand. Lucidity and brilliant éclat mark Fleisher’s rendition of the 1801 B-flat Concerto, undergirded by Szell’s insistence on fluid rhythmic motion. Fleisher makes us recollect that the concerto is in reality the first of Beethoven’s exercises in the medium, written at a time when his own abilities as composer and improviser meant to display themselves at once.  The canny modulations in the first movement – such as the move into D-flat and away from F Major – alerted the Vienna public that an audacious musical imagination confronted them. The grand cadenza (c. 1809) allows Fleisher to make a provocative palette all his own. Szell’s ability to raise the orchestral tissue into a luxurious serenade – even while maintaining a pithy, diaphanous texture when required for a ‘chamber music’ atmosphere – testifies to his contextual versatility.

The lovely Adagio, the heart of the work, attempts no false modesty in the name of “authenticity” of style, but presents a lyrico-dramatic meditation of resonant beauty. Here, we feel the ‘Schnabel’ influence in Fleisher’s studied evolution of the theme through its last utterance, con gran espessione, at the coda.  The rollicking last movement, a Rondo: Allegro molto, employs a series of jerky accents that permit Beethoven to play witty havoc with the beat when he feels the urge. The impish woodwind parts complement Fleisher in his excursions of the four-times-repeated ritornello, interrupted by something like a frisky gypsy episode that quite explodes in laughing figures.

—Gary Lemco