Secrets: Annie Fischer plays Schubert, Schumann, Chopin – Hungaroton

by | Nov 7, 2020 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Annie Fischer: Secrets = SCHUBERT: Piano Sonata in A Minor, D. 845; Piano Sonata in A Major, D. 959; SCHUMANN: Fantasiestuecke, Op. 12; Kreisleriana, Op. 16; CHOPIN: Nocturne in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 1 – Annie Fischer, piano – Hungaroton HCD 32845-46 (2 CDs) 64:54; 64:07 (7/21/20) (Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Posterity owes the existence of these recordings, taped 1978-1981, to a beloved devotee of Hungarian virtuoso Annie Fischer (1914-1995), the physiotherapist and gymnastics trainer Anna Deveny (1935-2017), who systematically recorded from ITT tape onto cassettes the various concerts given by Fischer at the Grand Hall of the Music  in Budapest, as well diverse concerts from the Hungarian provinces.  Technically, the sound did not match that of studio venues, but the restoration process  – with the approval of such luminary supervisors such as Zoltan Koscis – has reinvigorated the excitement of an Annie Fischer recital before a live audience, which she herself much preferred to studio engagements.

The set now allows us to hear repertory denied us in Fischer’s “official” catalogue: the Schubert A Minor and A Major sonatas, and the Schumann Op. 12 Fantasiestuecke. A tremendous, nervous energy initiates the 1825 Schubert A Minor Sonata (24 January 1978), the octave passages and their mordent soon assuming an epic status, with movement into the relative C Major and submediant F Major as sources of temporary solace. Fischer seems to envision the sonata-form first movement as an emotional battlefield, a typical, Manichean venue for the forces of light and dark to compete. In the later part of the recapitulation, Fischer almost loses control of the fierce passagework prior to a forceful coda. 

The Andante con moto presents us a theme and variations in C Major, a 32-measure that undergoes rhythmic and harmonic transformations throughout its five variants. Fischer’s light scherzando second variation has a charming, folk character. Suddenly, the tenor of the piece alters in the C Minor variation, a bleak and often dissonant reminder of hovering mortality.  Brisk 32nd notes mark variation four, chromatic in color and heavy in the bass part. The last of the variants reverts to C Major, with eighth note triplets, which Fischer colors with a haunted resonance, the bass patterns somewhat obsessive. 

The weirdly eccentric Scherzo: Allegro vivace in A Minor asks Fischer to execute odd lengths in phrases, subito quickly, and accelerate into distant harmonies. The bouncing back and forth from dominant to tonic seems to infiltrate most of this sonata’s template. The Trio in F Major introduces a temporary idyll, a rustic pastoral. The music rocks and lulls us, with an upper register peal, as of consoling bells, those we might well associate with Liszt’s later recollections of Geneva. The da capo refreshes the nervous vigor that characterizes this bewitching performance. The Rondo: Allegro vivace finale Fischer plays as a manic, relentless toccata that soon gravitates into C Major. We are reminded of the militant gravitas in the fifth of the Moments musicaux. The recapitulation, quite compressed, rockets, accelerando, to Fischer’s blazing coda.

The Schubert posthumous Sonata in A Major (rec. 17 February 1978) allows us a sustained look at Fischer’s concept of a work of “heavenly length.” The lovely cascade of triplets Fischer realizes for the opening foray sets her interpretation apart. Fischer’s Allegro remains quite propelled, more an allegro vivace with moments of andantino. Her interpretation takes a quick turn to the virtuosic, in the brilliant runs, and poetic, in the sensitive pedal effects. The repeat has Fischer alert to the four 16th notes in five-bar phrases that sets off the development section, through which she hurtles like a keyboard athlete. The secondary theme, however, retains its lyricism, and we enter into the high register opening theme and the coda with a sense of wistful melancholy. 

The amazing second movement, Andantino, owes its mournful beauty to a lied, Pilgerweise, a pilgrim’s song based on a text by Franz von Schober. Fischer then accelerates from 16th to triplets and 32nds, a huge crescendo in dissonant, toccata-style. Despite a slurred note or two, Fischer captures the drama of the progression and its sudden dissipation into a melancholy variant on the opening march. The last two minutes of this movement, from Fischer, literally glamourize her ability to make poetry and music merge in a rare sensibility of Romantic ardor. The Scherzo: Allegro vivace proves as playful in shifts in register as the second movement had been rapturous. The middle section floats in a laendler atmosphere, lyric and tender, yet emotionally heightened. The last movement, a Rondo: Allegretto, takes hybrid form with its sonata-development. Schubert borrows the main theme from his earlier A Minor Sonata, D. 537 (1817), the second movement. Now, Schubert introduces a series of episodes, of which the second of the three gravitates into a seriously stormy, minor mode. The passions Fischer unleashes here demand our audition, especially in the whirling bass notes. The storm’s having passed, we return to the main theme in studied dynamics from Fischer, soon to be fragmented, and to transition to a last-minute recollection of the first movement, a procedure at which even Beethoven might have marveled.

The Schumann set of 1837 eight Fantasiestuecke (rec. 4 March 1981) after E.T.A. Hoffmann, despite some sonic limitations from microphone placement, reveal a decidedly inward character in the opening Des Abends, the “gentle picture at dusk.” Fischer’s rendition has not the veiled luminosity of Moiseiwitsch, but she offers a plastic sense of the delicate hints of Clara Wieck intimated in the movement from D-flat to E Major, the latter a key precious to Eusebius, Schumann’s sensitive, poetic alter-ego. His more aggressive psychological persona, Florestan, asserts himself in  Aufschwung, an F Minor, rondo moment of “soaring,” whose episodes in D-flat Major and B-flat Major only temporarily subdue the emotional upheaval. The third piece, Warum? has Eusebius questioning life in D-flat Major. Florestan rather plods and saunters in Grillen, also in D-flat, with sullen bass tones. 

The fifth entry, In der Nacht, has the two personae converge, in what Fischer first presents as a heated fantasy, a tumult soothed somewhat by Eusebius, but the “fitful fever” resumes, a premonition of those jabbing, distrubed Traumes Wirren (“Whirling Dreams”) of section seven. The fifth episode, Fabel, once more has the two personae in conversation, but the tenor, lighter and quicker, proceeds as a scherzo. The final section, Ende von Lied, has an anxious Eusebius express his martial – maerchen – thoughts as a possible wedding march, but Schumann still has doubts, since he dedicates the suite to Anna Robena Laidlaw, a British pianist who may have consoled Schumann in his exile from his beloved Ms. Wieck.

Schumann’s 1838 suite of eight pieces, Kreisleriana, merely extends the emotional and psychic dualisms in Op. 12: Florestan and Eusebius compete via the character of violinist Johannes Kreisler, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s literary evocation of the diabolic Niccolo Paganini. The tenor of the piece –  often in the guise of a toccata – combines Bach four-part harmony and three-voice stretti with volatile, Romantic contradiction, a blistering babble from which a melody might arise from the top, the middle, or the bass of the piano. Fischer begins the frenetic torrent Äußerst bewegt (intensely agitated), but letting Eusebius offer calming thoughts. The coda stings us, but the next, elongated section, Sehr innig und nicht zu rasch (very intimate and not too fast), has Eusebius in a tender mood, suddenly interrupted – via Intermezzi – by dazzling, chromatic chords and then rocking back to the opening tropes. Fischer has the melody sing out from the middle voice of a thick texture, echoed in the bass. 

Schumann moves into G Minor, Sehr aufgeregt (quite agitated), a confused pattern that finds solace in B-flat Major, and B-flats repeat restively. Fischer explodes in fustian terms into the coda, an extended moment of wild abandon. The dualism then progresses into the fourth section, Sehr langsam, a very slow dirge in B-flat that wends its way into D Minor. Pedal effects blur the voices, yet the key for the performer lies in maintaining a sense of clarity in the arioso line. Schumann had been impressed by Chopin’s visit in 1837, and his technique here pays the mighty Pole homage. A suffusion of dotted rhythms permeate the fifth section, Sehr lebhaft, urging the melodic line upward to a high F. Fischer imbues the progression and three-voice stretti with a dire, driven impulse. Then to B-flat Major for Sehr langsam,12/8 that soon transitions into C Minor and a series of glissandos that bow to Bach. The rhythm becomes a Chopin ballade, moody and elusive in temperament. 

Furiously, the seventh section, Sehr rasch, has Fischer’s punching the keys in fugato, a wild rush of 16ths. Suddenly, a hymn tune sings out, in quarter notes; then, a typical Schumann maneuver, the ritardando, that manipulates the affective life of the piece. The last section,  Schnell und spielend (Fast and playful), is in an elfin G minor – pp and staccato – that bodes catastrophe for the protagonist Kreisler, whom author Hoffmann predicted would go mad or die of art, like Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes. The big moment for Fischer, measure 73, has her play Mit alle Kraft – with all one’s strength – in order to express the deep yearning of our protagonist for love; or at least, Schumann’s desire for his distant Clara. The lithe figures return, ppp, to haunt us in their tiptoe buoyancy, a gesture which, in its sinister form, marks D.H. Lawrence’s gardener in “The Rocking Horse Winner.” 

The Chopin 1836 Nocturne in C-sharp Minor (rec. 17 February 1978) demands a persistent left-hand melody, 4/4 Larghetto.  The section marked piu mosso ¾ delivers a stunning transition in mood, almost warlike, and the work under Fischer could be a ballade. A relatively gentle cadenza leads us into an unexpected region of sunlight, and we feel the Manichean element in Chopin, the perpetual battle of dark and light. 

In the liner notes, Attila Retkes calls Annie Fischer “the best performer of Schumann who ever lived.”  Mere hyperbole?  You decide.  But the fascinating story of Anna Deveny and her bootleg history of recording Annie Fischer makes fascinating reading, which I recommend highly.

—Gary Lemco 

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