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Hyperion Records

APR5502 - Edwin Fischer – The First Beethoven Sonata Recordings

Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Release date: August 1993
Total duration: 71 minutes 5 seconds

Edwin Fischer – The First Beethoven Sonata Recordings
Movement 1: Prelude  [1'00]  recorded 28 April 1934
Movement 5: Air, with five variations  [5'30]  recorded 28 April 1934
Movement 6: Presto  [1'58]  recorded 28 April 1934
Grave – Allegro di molto e con brio  [8'08]  recorded 8 November 1938
Adagio cantabile  [4'58]  recorded 8 November 1938
Rondo: Allegro  [3'49]  recorded 8 November 1938
Allegro assai  [8'35]  recorded 3 June 1935
Andante con moto  [5'51]  recorded 3 June 1935
Allegro ma non troppo  [7'38]  recorded 3 June 1935
Movement 1: Moderato cantabile molto espressivo  [6'05]  recorded 8 November 1938
Movement 2: Allegro molto  [1'50]  recorded 8 November 1938
Movement 3a: Adagio, ma non troppo  [3'11]  recorded 8 November 1938
Movement 3b: Fuga: Allegro, ma non troppo  [6'22]  recorded 8 November 1938

This is a recording from Appian Publications & Recordings Ltd (to quote the full title)—the label invariably more familiarly known simply as "APR".

Since its foundation in 1986, APR has won an enviable reputation as a quality label devoted predominantly—though not exclusively—to historic piano recordings. In particular APR has won countless laurels for the high standard of its 78rpm restoration work—"Transfers of genius" to quote one critic—as well as the detail and content of its booklets.

Edwin Fisher and Beethoven
The Beethoven sonatas on this disc are among Fischer’s finest studio recordings, yet some of the least well known. Neither the ‘Pathétique’ nor the ‘Appassionata’ were ever transferred to LP, and Fischer’s readings of these works are generally known only through inferior remakes from 1952. The versions presented here, however, show that in the 1930s he could have set down a Beethoven cycle to rival that of Schnabel.

Where does Fischer stand in the development of interpretation? He saw himself as a progressive artist. His writings insist on fidelity to the text and the importance of accurate editions. After Romanticism, he wrote, came

the purifiers: Busoni, Stravinsky, Bartók, Hindemith, Toscanini. [Note the mixture of composers and performers.] And we interpreters are now following in their footsteps. The performance we aspire to accords exactly with the composer’s intentions, respects the note values and directions, is stripped of unnecessary trimmings, but is not devoid of feeling and expression. [But] our aim should not be the kind of pure soil and sterile air in which nothing will grow. Fidelity to the score is not enough, vital though it was to correct the subjective and irreverent attitude with its plush curtains and dimmed lights. [This and all other quotations are from Fischer’s Beethoven’s Pianoforte Sonatas (Faber and Faber, 1959), and are reproduced with the permission of the publisher.]

Like many great performers of his time Fischer was also a composer, and he understood the insights which this gave him.

Whenever I listened to d’Albert and other great artists (Reger, Bartók) I often wondered how they achieved the astonishing musicality and inner logic of their performances. I came to see that it was a clear awareness of the harmonic progressions which made their playing so convincing and absorbing. When a true modulation was made, it was significantly underlined. They led us from one key to another, from one section of the work to the next, giving the impression of something that had grown organically. That may be what distinguishes interpreters who also compose from players who are fundamentally uncreative.

But at the deepest level he saw interpretation as a spiritual quest. Technique, textual fidelity and analysis, though essential in themselves, were all means to this higher purpose. He disliked materialism and mechanization, both in music and the wider world, and advocated closeness to nature, relaxation and an almost mystical combination of self-renunciation and individual creativity. [Fischer sets out his philosophy of interpretation at length, together with essays on Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart and Schumann, in Reflections on Music, Williams and Norgate, 1951.]

In many ways Fischer’s interpretations are intensely classical. There is a powerful sense of structure and climax. Incisive dynamics and rhythmic vitality together create a darting, pulsing momentum in allegro movements. His playing also has an inner stillness, a freedom from purely metronomic constraints. We only indirectly sense his underlying strength and control. His unique piano sound is beautiful and expressive, yet there is nothing self-regarding about his performances.

If his playing does not always accord with today’s values, that may be our loss. He points up the rhythmic and melodic shapes of phrases, sometimes scurrying through short notes and emphasizing long ones. He often makes slight variations in tempo, both from moment to moment and over longer passages. Like many of his contemporaries, as Robert Philip notes in his book on historic recordings, he projects and characterizes the music and seeks to illuminate its inner processes. His playing, as he ruefully admitted, is not mechanically perfect, but his audiences valued inspiration at least as much as technique. A certain roughness was acceptable, even desirable. We may debate whether modern criteria are either inherently better or more historically accurate in the performance of the classics, but the final test must be the one Fischer set himself: does he bring the music to life?

Fischer’s recital programmes show him performing almost all of the Beethoven sonatas. Those he gave most often were Opp 10/3, 27/2, 28, 53, 57, 106, 110 and 111; the largest gap in his recorded legacy is the ‘Hammerklavier’. His essays on them, based on a series of lectures, reveal much about his thinking. He moves constantly between the overall conception and construction of the works and their interpretation, down to the handling of minute details. It is difficult to quote concisely, but I hope that the following excerpts illuminate his recordings on all of these levels. For clarity’s sake I have not shown elisions with editorial dots, but I have used only Fischer’s words.

First, the Pathétique: To my mind, this sonata is not so perfect and homogeneous as some of the lesser-known ones. The first movement is like an excerpt from the piano arrangement of a symphonic work; the last movement is not commensurate with the first two. The second movement, however, is perfect in every respect.

Yet Fischer both analyses and performs the work with infinite care, a testimony to his integrity as a musical advocate. No one could guess from the recording that he thought it anything less than a masterpiece.

Like most pianists, Fischer repeats the first movement exposition but not the introduction, and defends this in his essay. He goes on:

It is obvious that the Allegro subject and its continuation in the development are related to the Grave theme. The second subject is also related to it. There is a difficulty here: the mordent. Performed on the beat, it will, considering its speed, easily result in a triplet. An anticipation, however, might lead to sentimentality. The right way is anyone’s guess.
The fp of the very first chord offers a further difficulty; should this be played f to begin with and then the whole chord p until the demisemiquaver? Difficult though it is to reproduce today, the orchestral effect of the fp is to be preferred because it is more in accord with the idea of ‘pathétique’. No crescendo should be made before the recapitulation. The semibreve passage before the final Grave gives rise to the five bars of staccato chords at the end. The second movement is one of Beethoven’s most glorious inspirations. Despite its emotionalism, it has to have classical stance, and despite its classical simplicity, it has to be full of feeling. How to do this? Give an expressive tone to the melody and obtain simplicity and symmetry by keeping the rhythm even.

Fischer does not entirely follow his own advice; he begins the A flat minor episode (bar 37 et seq) with emphatic rubato.

[In the Finale] the two-part writing is hard to bring off. If one takes the light rondo character of the Allegro 2/2 as a guide the movement will contrast overmuch with the others; if one plays it slowly, with meaning in every note, it may easily become wooden and clumsy. I play the opening sotto voce and not too fast, trying at the same time to give it some inner excitement. To my mind, the first E flat major theme is the real second subject, and the melody in crotchets merely an appendage (bar 44). That Beethoven attaches more importance to this theme (bar 25) is indicated by his direction dolce. The triplet figures (bars 51 et seq) should be well articulated. The central episode in A flat with its minims should be played warmly and cantabile, not didactically. In the coda (bar 193) the movement resumes again the general character of the work. Harsher dynamic accents are heard; the composer leads us to A flat major, and just as he seems to be introducing the subject again in A flat major, he suddenly returns to the tonic C minor.

Fischer had no doubts about the Appassionata:

One of the greatest peaks in the history of the sonata … technical mastery must be complemented by the ability of unifying its vast outlines by highlighting each climax. Much wrong is done to this sonata, and one need only ask a pianist to write down the opening bars from memory to see how few have an accurate knowledge of the work.
It is important to find the right tempo. Usually the 12/8 is turned into four groups of triplet crotchets, whereas what is required is the distinct playing of each of the twelve quavers. Every note is so significant, so related to the whole, that any indistinctness will lead to the gravest errors in interpretation. The tempo should not be the kind of race into which players are sometimes led by the title. I do not see the point of slowing down [for] the second subject, though it is advocated by some distinguished editors; the second subject is merely a transformation of the first. You should continue to play in the tempo at which you play the first three quavers. In view of the importance and difficulty of deciding on the right tempo it may be well to follow the example of some great artists who recall some characteristic theme about whose tempo there can be no question. In this case the third subject in A flat minor (bar 51) is a good theme to bear in mind. That the repeat of the opening in G flat (bar 5) must sound different from the beginning itself is obvious; pp and a lead by the left are indicated. [In the development] the phrases containing trills should be ‘orchestrated’ in different colours. Ways of obtaining this are round or flat fingers, accenting the upper or lower parts, the use, or omission, of the pedal or soft pedal. At the close of the rising figures in bars 219 et seq the rhythm should be well articulated. The D flat in bar 228 should be played with the right hand. In spite of Beethoven’s direction to keep the pedal down, the last bars after the fortissimo F (bar 257) should be reduced with the help of the soft pedal to a volume which allows the melodic line to come through clearly.
[In the second movement] notice the Andante con moto but remember that this refers to the quavers, not the crotchets. Most difficult is perhaps the first variation where an exact alternation between quaver chords and rests in the right hand is confronted with the perfect legato of the syncopated bass. The [later] demisemiquavers must be played expressively, though lightly and tenderly. The ff in most editions at the climaxes is not authentic. All brilliancy must be eschewed. The last variation becomes calmer and calmer. The penultimate bar with the diminished 7th really belongs to the previous bar (95). The D flat in the treble of bar 96 should be played as a melody note. In the autograph, the arpeggio sign of the last chord applies only to the left hand. The unbroken touch of the right hand gives this chord its piercing intensity. The terrible relentlessness of the following bars [the finale following attacca] should be obtained by stabbing at the keys with a fixed wrist.

The A flat major sonata, Op 110:

The childlike simplicity of the main subjects warms the heart as one recalls all the vicissitudes which the composer had to overcome before he could reach this point. If we call Op 111 a masculine work, this sonata is feminine, though such descriptions do not go to the heart of the matter.
In the first movement it should be remembered that the roots of every rhythm are to be found in breathing, the heartbeat or the dance-step. The rhythmic units are the crotchets here, and by referring the Moderato to them we shall keep the tempo from sagging. Yet in the final bars every note must be given its utmost value.
The Scherzo should be thought of in 2-bar strains (4/4) with the accent on the second bar. The Trio shows that the whole movement must be taken fairly steadily, so that the Chopinesque filigree figuration in the right hand can achieve its full poetic effect. The main notes in the left hand ought perhaps, ideally, to continue sounding. In the coda, the chords fall on unaccented bars and this gives a comforting effect to the final F major chord which comes on a strong bar. No break should be made before the next movement.
In the semiquaver accompaniment of the Arioso the keys should not be completely released; the chords should be packed as tightly together as possible. The sanglots intercoupés at the repeat (116) should be played as sensitively as possible, likewise the resurgence of the heartbeats in the last G major chords (132).
The second fugue with the inversion of the fugal subject presents the considerable difficulty of integrating the rhythmic augmentation and diminution into the context, and of developing the accompanying figure of the end from the fugue subject. That the diminution is not exactly twice the speed of the first statement is shown by Beethoven’s own meno allegro and the subsequent più moto. Great intensity of touch and skilful pedalling are demanded by the high-lying radiantly transfigured melody of the end. Any acceleration in the last bars would be wrong.

Roger Smithson © 1993

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