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Hyperion Records

APR7303 - Edwin Fischer – Mozart Piano Concertos
APR7303
Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Release date: March 2010
Total duration: 218 minutes 19 seconds

Edwin Fischer – Mozart Piano Concertos
CD1
Allegro  [13'11]  recorded 24 November 1933
Romanze  [8'43]  recorded 24 November 1933
Rondo: Allegro assai  [7'12]  recorded 24 November 1933
Allegro  [12'06]  recorded 6 June 1935
Andante  [8'44]  recorded 6 June 1935
Allegro  [10'28]  recorded 6 June 1935
Rondo for piano and orchestra K382  [7'19]  recorded 30 November 1936
with Edwin Fischer Chamber Orchestra
Minuet in G major K1  [2'41]  arr. Edwin Fischer (1886-1960)  recorded 25 November 1933
CD2
Allegro  [10'28]  recorded 7 May 1937
Andante  [8'23]  recorded 7 May 1937
Allegretto – Presto  [5'55]  recorded 7 May 1937
Allegro  [12'57]  recorded 3 March 1937
Larghetto  [6'34]  recorded 3 March 1937
Allegretto  [7'57]  recorded 3 March 1937
Theme (Andante grazioso) & Variations  [7'35]  recorded 28 April 1933
Menuetto  [3'32]  recorded 28 April 1933
Allegretto: Alla turca  [2'55]  recorded 28 April 1933
CD3
Allegro maestoso  [14'24]  recorded 10 October 1947
Andante  [7'38]  recorded 10 October 1947
Allegretto  [8'27]  recorded 10 October 1947
Allegro moderato  [4'04]  recorded 6 March 1937
Andante cantabile  [4'12]  recorded 6 March 1937
Allegretto  [3'39]  recorded 6 March 1937
Fantasia in C minor K475  [10'53]  recorded 29 May 1941
Romance in A flat major KA205  [3'38]  recorded 29 May 1941
Vivace  [6'18]  recorded circa 22 October 1942
Un poco adagio  [6'40]  recorded circa 22 October 1942
Rondo all'ungarese: Allegro assai  [3'56]  recorded circa 22 October 1942

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.


Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Edwin Fischer was born on 6 October 1886 in Basel to musical parents who were quick to recognize their son’s talent. In 1896 he entered the Basel Conser­vatory and from 1904 studied at the Stern Conservatory in Berlin with the Liszt pupil Martin Krause. The two most important influences in his development were d’Albert and Busoni.

By the 1920s Fischer was one of Europe’s leading pianists, celebrated in the romantic repertoire and already exploring the works of Bach and Mozart with which he came to be particularly associated. But this was only part of his wide-ranging and innovative musical career. He was also a conductor, directing the Lübeck Musikverein, the Munich Bachverein and his own chamber orchestra; an editor of works by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven; a composer of songs, piano pieces and cadenzas; and an esteemed teacher, first at the Stern Conservatory and later at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik.

In 1943 he returned to Switzerland, where he taught at the Lucerne Conservatory. He continued working and recording in the LP era, but deteriorating health forced him to give up recording and regular public appearances after 1954. He died on 24 January 1960.

To understand Fischer’s place in the development of Mozart interpretation, we have to recall Mozart’s status in the early decades of the twentieth century. Everyone knew his name, yet his work was little known and poorly understood. Ernest Newman likened his music to ‘the prattling of a child’, and as late as the 1950s Gieseking could write that ‘the ease and perfection of his writing put his works beyond all human frailties, all human cares’. For Fischer, writing in 1929, Richard Strauss and Ferruccio Busoni ‘first proclaimed to our generation the true meaning of Mozart’. Fischer, Schnabel, Kleiber and Walter were among the greatest of that younger generation who came to see in Mozart the profoundly human and expressive figure whom we revere today:

One feels that at the age of 20 he had experienced more than most others at 50. He had a bird-like capacity for swift reaction; he sensed more, felt more than an ordinary person. Like Shakespeare he lifts tragedy in to the light in which the gods see it dispassionately. The art of restraint, of merely suggesting, this ‘play’ with human passions … raises him to the highest levels of spiritual maturity which a human being can attain. This is why he is so hard to interpret, despite his apparent simplicity. He transcended his world, not just by his miraculous talent, as so many people believe, but by dedicated work.

Fischer served Mozart’s cause in many capacities. As a performer he brought this unfamiliar music to concert audiences through­out Europe, and his were among the first recordings. He formed his chamber orchestra at least partly to realize his overall conception of the concertos and to conduct the sym­phonies. He edited a number of Mozart’s piano sonatas, seeking (as always in his editorial work) to restore the Urtext, and composed cadenzas for some of the concertos. In his teaching and writing, too, he sought to convey his insights, insisting on clarity and spontaneity:

Mozart’s light, aristocratic hand loved to scatter passage work, trills, fioriture, ‘delicate petals on an airy garland’. You, too, should scatter them, and: con grazia.

Fischer’s disciples, including Badura-Skoda, Brendel and Barenboim, have been among the most distinguished advocates of the concertos and sonatas, in the concert hall and on record. A measure of their success is that it is now startling to read Fischer urging pianists to play, among other works, ‘the rarely heard piano concerti: K414, 271, 453, 503’. If today we find it hard to imagine that these works were ever rarely heard, much of the credit lies with Edwin Fischer.

Piano Concerto No 20 in D minor K466
Fischer’s interpretation of this concerto, at the time Mozart’s best-known, is classical, sym­phonic and in many ways strikingly modern. His pianism was at its peak in these years, and this is a typical example of his darting, energetic playing. His dual role as soloist and conductor seems to impose no strain; the London Philharmonic follows his lead in a fully worked and integrated interpretation, revealed with unprecedented clarity by this digital transfer. Unusually for the period there is almost no string portamento (this version is far less tonally sumptuous than its main rival on 78s, Bruno Walter with the Vienna Philhar­monic). The first movement varies little in tempo, the marked relaxation in ‘second subject’ material being achieved almost entirely by legato. Only in passages for piano solo, brief digressions from the main argument, does Fischer reduce the tempo significantly. Fischer’s cadenza characteristically quotes material which Mozart gave to the orchestra rather than the piano; the lead-back is taken from Beethoven’s cadenza.

The Romanze is courtly. Fischer seeks clarity rather than Gothic atmosphere in the ‘stormy’ middle section. He structures his reading of the whole movement to accumulate a tension which is released only at the end, in the tender slowing for the last statement of the main theme. The finale is again classical, its vigorous Allegro assai sustained without effort. The cadenza refers back to the first tutti from this movement, then to the first movement of the concerto.

Piano Concerto No 22 in E flat major K482
For Fischer, as for many visiting soloists, Barbirolli (not yet ‘Sir John’ in 1935) was the accompanist of first choice; here he conducts an unidentified orchestra probably assembled for the session. In contrast to the D minor, this concerto is discursive, even rhapsodic, and Fischer’s interpretation is accordingly elastic in tempo and phrasing. The first movement gains gradually in power and tension, cul­minating in the recapitulation delivered with terrific drive. The cadenza again quotes from the tuttis.

Fischer begins and ends the second move­ment very slowly and expansively, building up to and down from the marked Andante tempo as the movement unfolds. This reading lasts nine minutes, nearly two minutes less than in his later live versions (1946 and 1954). The difference is due mainly to his faster speed in the piano-led variation from bar 93, which may have been necessary to fit the concerto on eight 78 sides; if so, this is the only such compromise in these recordings. The coda, with the piano slowing for its brief transition to the major, is particularly beautiful.

In the final Allegro Fischer, in line with the latest musicological thinking of his day, varies the theme, plays semiquaver arpeggio figura­tions in passages where Mozart sketched in only crotchets, and fills in chords to support the printed single notes in the andante cantabile episode (218–264).

Rondo for piano and orchestra in D K382
Fischer’s recordings with his own chamber orchestra illustrate his ideas on Mozart style in their purest form. The ensemble here is smaller than the full orchestra heard in the D minor and E flat concertos; it comprises 6 first and 5 second violins, 3 violas, 3 cellos and 2 double-basses, plus double woodwinds. Yet there is nothing academic or small-scale about this nonchalant and amusingly characterized performance. There are no repeats.

Piano Concerto No 17 in G major K453
This concerto and the Rondo K382 are the only concertante works of Mozart that Fischer recorded with his own chamber orchestra. The small ensemble (strings 6, 5, 3, 3, 1 and double winds) reflects a historical awareness unusual in the 1930s, yet the interpretation is natural, even playlful, in a way that seems to elude latter-day performers using authentic forces. The first movement is taken unusually fast, with the graceful 16-bar opening, the bustling principal material of the exposition and the hushed re-entry of the orchestra after the cadenza all realized at essentially the same tempo. There is a tangible, improvisatory excite­ment towards the end of the exposition, the ensemble driving urgently forward. Fischer’s own playing derives its momentum not from forceful delivery but a relaxed, buoyant rhythm. The Andante’s restless, transient moods and half-lights exemplify what Brendel has defined as Fischer’s gift for emotional differentation. Comedy pre­dominates in the final Allegretto, nowhere more so than in the knockabout exchanges among the wood­winds and horns in the coda. (A radio recording of Fischer and these soloists in the Quintet, K452, remains unissued.) Even the commonplace Alberti bass figurations on the piano take on a cheerful, bubbling life of their own.

Piano Concerto No 24 in C minor K491
Like the D minor and E flat concertos on CD 1, this recording was made in London with a full orchestra (strings 8, 6, 4, 4, 2). Lawrance Collingwood (1887–1982) was a musical fac­totum, conductor, chorus-master, organist and composer, but is best remembered now­adays as an HMV producer. He had rehearsed the orchestra for the D minor Concerto in 1933 and Fischer asked him to prepare in the same way for this session, giving him detailed instruc­tions on the interpretation beforehand. It was planned that Fischer would direct the recording from the keyboard, but in the event Collingwood conducted, no doubt to avoid problems with the orchestra in this complex and as yet unfamiliar work. The whole con­ception, however, is unquestionably Fischer’s own. The clarity and tragic intensity of the first movement – in both piano and orchestra – remind us that he welcomed Toscanini’s purifying influence on performance. The musicologist Arthur Hutchings wrote in his Companion to Mozart’s Piano Concertos that ‘I had not heard a single pianist play the opening phrase with control of time and touch until I got the Fischer recording’. The terse opening of the finale and its subsequent lyrical expansion can also be heard in live perfor­mances from 1951 and 1954 in which Fischer conducted from the piano. Throughout, the woodwind parts are prominent; in approving the discs for issue, Fischer singled out the bassoon and oboe soloists for special praise.

Fantasia in C minor K396
HMV planned to record Fischer in all four of Mozart’s fantasias for solo piano, but only made the two in C minor. K396 had been part of Fischer’s core repertoire since the start of his career, and here he plays it with apparently effortless mastery. Yet this was his third attempt at a recording, earlier sessions in 1928 and May 1934 having failed to satisfy him.

Piano Sonata No 11 in A major K331
Mozart was represented in Fischer’s solo recital repertoire principally by the sonatas K330, 331, 545 and 576 and the fantasias K396, 397 and 475. In these pieces, which were even less familiar than the concertos, he was forced to be original; whereas his Beethoven inter­pretations built on the legacy of predecessors such as d’Albert and Anton Rubinstein, there was no tradition of Mozart performance and the only possible influence was that of Busoni. These records are feline – elegant, sensuous, inquisitive. As in the concertos his tempi within movements vary little, and even the episodic Andante grazioso maintains a classical balance and continuity. The Rondo alla turca, rhythmically brilliant and lit up with a ferocious joy, is a touchstone of Mozart style.

Piano Concerto No 25 in C major K503
HMV planned to record Fischer conducting this concerto from the keyboard in the 1930s, but war intervened and the honour of the gramophone premiere went to Kathleen Long and Boyd Neel. When Fischer returned to the studios in 1947, Walter Legge had introduced a new conception of recording based on the Philharmonia and a roster of superior con­ductors including that great Mozartian Josef Krips. Fischer and Krips had previously toured together, and though they had never before collaborated on this concerto their reading has the cohesion of a regular partnership. Under Legge’s supervision they briskly set down two takes of each of the eight sides, and there was enough time left for Krips to record Johann Strauss I’s Radetzky March (Columbia DB 2458) and Johann Strauss II’s Tales of the Vienna Woods (Columbia DX 1503).

From this magnificent performance, Fischer’s pupil Marcella Barzetti cited the finale – a true Allegretto – as a model of his pianism: ‘It is not perfect, but infinitely alive. Each note has the resiliency of a coiled spring. Nothing is merely pretty or pleasing, but exploding with vitality, and the melodic design flows smoothly, without coyness.’ Krips’s conducting, as in the classic Decca Don Giovanni and his cycle of the Symphonies 21–41 with the Concertgebouw, is urgent, lucid and inimitably stylish. (The present transfer reveals the sonic beauty of the recording, and the orchestral contribution in particular, more clearly than ever before.) Fischer went on to work frequently with the Philharmonia, which became one of his favourite orchestras. We can only regret that pre-war plans for Concertos Nos 9 and 21 (K271 and 467) were never revived, and apart from a late remake of the D minor concerto this set brought Fischer’s Mozart series to an end.

Piano Sonata No 10 in C major K330
Fischer takes the outer movements fast – faster, it is reported, than in his latter-day recitals – and in the Allegretto in particular he seems to be swept along by his own enthusiasm. His tempi are flexible, now dashing through a busy passage, now relaxing for a melodic phrase, but the overall pace is steady and the overt speed fluctuations of a previous generation are absent. The greatest inspiration comes in the Andante cantabile: hear, for example, the tonal shading of the repeated notes at the modulations into the minor.

Fantasia in C minor K475
For Fischer this enigmatic Fantasia stands alone; he never combined it with the K457 Sonata as modern scholarship dictates. He conceives it on a vast scale and in sombre colours, heightening its restlessness, the constant changes of mood and pace. In the closing tempo primo bars he takes the initial pianissimo close to inaudibility before moving implacably to the piece’s final, unanswered question.

Romance in A flat major KAnh205
Fischer’s 1929 essay on Mozart shows that he knew of the doubts about the attribution of this vignette, but he continued to play it, no doubt feeling that its charm did not depend on its authorship. He recorded it three times; this version dates from 1941.

Haydn Concerto in D major Hob XVIII:11
Fischer did not champion Haydn as com­prehensively as Mozart, but he recorded the Symphony No 104 with his chamber orchestra and, in wartime Vienna, this astonishing set. The first movement’s speed and energy are electrifying, yet there is no harshness or hammering – Fischer points up the rhythm with remarkable relaxation and delicacy, and the orchestra is equally nonchalant. The cadenza is omitted, no doubt to get the work on four sides. The Adagio, in this impassioned reading, shows why Fischer loved the Vienna Philharmonic’s string sound; the blistering Rondo all’Ungherese testifies to their mastery of the dance idiom. This is a masterpiece of the early Haydn discography.

Roger Smithson © 2000

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