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CD Review

The Centennial Collection

Annie Fischer, piano
* Budapest Symphony Orchestra/Ervin Lukás
** Budapest Symphony Orchestra/Heribert Esser
Hungaroton HCD41011 3CDs
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I often pick promotional copies based on artists and composers not represented in my collection. While the repertoire here is nothing less than standard, Annie Fischer left a very small discography due to her disdain for the recording process, and each of her efforts are treasured by collectors. These Hungaroton discs sell individually for astronomical prices, sometimes in the $400 range on Amazon, and so this set is absolutely essential for those interested in this enormously gifted and studio-shy performer.

Fischer did leave multiple recorded versions of the concerti, both live and in the studio, and certainly her conductors on EMI and DG are more familiar to most listeners. I have not heard those accounts – Fischer's work is hardly a fixture of the dwindling retail market for CDs – but they have received the highest praise. These present renditions, dating from the early to late 1960s, show a pianist of sensitivity and grace. Disc one is an all-Mozart program with orchestra and proves a winner. The Budapest Symphony players are scrappy and ill-tuned, but I honestly don't think you'll care too much. They don't match the Philharmonia Orchestra during the Klemperer era; though I repeat that I've not heard the EMI Mozart concerti, I can confidently assume based on what I have read that the Budapest band does not outclass anyone in particular. The same cannot be said for Fischer, who plays with a real feel for the composer and obvious sympathy for the Classical style. Never overly virtuosic, but not once soft-edged or plain, these readings will surely reward any piano fan, and for fans of Fischer, nothing here is redundant.

Ideally, one wants fuller strings for the time period and given the big band approach. So the sounds of the slow movement in the Concerto #22 ultimately disappoint, especially for music so beautiful and elegant. Still, Fischer's genuine love for this music and combination of strength and poetry convince us in the end. Conversely, the Rondo that ends the first disc is unusually urgent in the orchestral sections and the lightness and freshness is appealing despite imperfect ensemble. And Fischer seems energized by Maestro Lukás' willingness to push forward, the playing is exciting, but never lacking in poise. This last work can often sound clumsy and heavy, but not here. Great stuff.

While the orchestral framework for the Beethoven that opens disc two practically defines "serviceable", there are some fine touches in the woodwinds, and nothing is ever too weighty for comfort. Heibert Essler is nobody's first choice in this work, but there have been worse partnerships for sure. And Fischer is fabulous. The same qualities that made her Mozart so desirable are fully in evidence here, aided by a welcome forcefulness that fits Beethoven very well. Again, the slow movement is lovely, with simply marvelous phrasing. The finale has a crisp angularity that recalls great versions of the past, but naturally lacks a great orchestra and conductor.

I'm inclined to support the importance of the solo selections, which really do show this capable artist at her best. For one, there's no need to worry about bad orchestral execution since there isn't one here. While the Schubert Impromptu is admittedly slight, it's a lovely addition (and probably made a fine end to the original LP). On the other hand, the two sonatas here are major works by any standard, and are played with exceptional musicianship and taste. In particular, I'm impressed by the strength and intelligence of the Liszt, who gets his due despite the pianist's more classical leanings. The sound is wholly acceptable if not exceptional, and the collection draws to a satisfying close.

The EMI/Warner Classics set devoted to Fischer undoubtedly shows off more of her limited range, and her collaborators in those discs are more idiomatic partners as a whole. Still, as I said, these albums are extremely pricy and are highly valued. It's great to see collector's items available to those who want them, in a way that they are affordable. The notes are decent, the packaging not winning any awards but never disgracing anybody. A very welcome and unexpected bit of generosity has brought all these recordings together again. This is a must for piano fans.

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman

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