EDWIN FISCHER Public Performances and Broadcasts, 1943-1953
The program essay by Farhan Malik that accompanies these six discs (for the price of four) states straightaway that "the 1880s saw the birth of three pianists who were to become indelibly associated with the core German piano literature: Wilhelm Backhaus (1882), Artur Schnabel (1884) and Edwin Fischer, who was born in Basel [Switzerland] on 6 October 1886." No mention, though, of their stellar colleague, Artur Rubinstein -- seven months older than Fischer - who was one of of the great"Chopianists" of all time, yet played much of the same repertoire, often as well and sometimes better. The lone exception in his case was Bach der Vater, but then neither Backhaus nor Schnabel were Bach-specialists. The Cantor of Leipzig was Fischer's specialty, both as a pianist and as a conductor, here of the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra.
But this is 19th-century Bach, be cautioned, on a grand piano, recurringly with a heavy touch and sometimes a sobriety verging on didacticism. Fischer also led the Berlin Philharmonic in a 1943 performance of Beethoven's C major Concerto (officially No. 1, actually No. 2) but disfigured it with his outrČ cadenzas, at least for me. Rubinstein, too, habitually inserted cadenzas by other composers, although Beethoven himself wrote plenty of them, while Schnabel willfully spoiled any number of live Mozart concerto performances by substituting his own stylistically atrocious 20th-century cadenzas. (I recall at least one such that Music & Arts issued on LP in its first years - No. 22 with Rodzinski and the NYPhil - so intrusively repellent that I finally traded the disc.)
The sixth CD here ends with tandem performances of Mozart's D minor Concerto, K.466, and "Late" G-minor Symphony, K.550, with the Municipal Orchestra of Strasbourg, the latter a driven performance that might have been gripping had it not been so overweighted tonally. Fischer played but did not conduct the Beethoven Fourth Concerto in a 1949 performance with Anatole Fistoulari and the Paris Conservatory Orchestra, again with his own and Eugen d'Albert's cadenzas rather than Beethoven's. Finally, there is a Brahms B-flat Concerto, Op. 83, with Hans Münch (a younger cousin of Charles) conducting the Basel Orchestra, from 1943, the same year that Fischer broadcast it with Furtw”ngler from Berlin -- a more expansive performance but with plenty of finger slips, issued on a variety of stateside LPs starting with Vox (I believe it was). The Basel performance was surprisingly brisk and technically more assured, but the orchestra was provincial, the conducting coarse, and the broadcast sound shallow.
After the war, on a distinguished but short-lived series of HMV LPs issued in the U.S. by RCA, Fischer was soloist in a powerfully solemn "Emperor" Concerto with Furtw”ngler and the Philharmonia Orchestra, as well as soloist on two LPs of Mozart Concertos conducting "his" orchestra: Nos, 17, 20, 22, 24 and 25. There were also Schubert's Moments musicaux, and a coupling of Brahms' F-minor Piano Sonata, Op. 5, with Schumann's Op. 17 Fantasie. Music & Arts has elected to include a singularly sloppy performance of the Op. 5 Brahms that Radio Italiana broadcast in 1948, with a major memory slip in the Scherzo. It should not have been included in an album purporting to be a tribute. For that matter, Disc 1 opens with Brahms' Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 21, No. 1, which Fischer seems to have played only in 1949 -- leadenly, with broken chords and a poker-face -- perhaps the most "old-fashioned" performance in an album of stylistically dated Bach performances, even though it was his Well-Tempered Klavier, complete for the first time ever on prewar 78s, that introduced many here and abroad to the music.
What I treasured most as a teen, however, were Fischer's poetic nuances in a prewar recording of Schubert's Impromptus, Opp. 90 and 142, that neither Schnabel nor Alfred Brendel, Fischer's most famous pupil, came close to challenging (nor did Rubinstein, or a host of others since, although I have yet to hear Mitsuko Uchida's version on Philips). LP brought a 1953 disc of Schubert Lieder in which Fischer accompanied Elisabeth Schwarzkopf magically, whereas her 1956 LP of Mozart songs with light-fingered Walter Gieseking at the keyboard was coy -- indeed almost a parody. Alas, EMI paired the two sets on the same CD in 1986. M-&-A's sound transfers are variable -- including an upper-frequency buzz in the violins during a couple of Lausanne Bach concertos -- not surprising, given broadcast sources from an assortment of venues over a 10-year period in the last public years of Fischer's career.