The current issue of Opus lists 20 complete sets of the Beethoven sonatas, and none of them is entirely satisfactory. This is not surprising; these 32 extraordinary compositions range from strict classicism through passionate romanticism to the most austere expressions of the composer's thought, from quite simple pieces to those demanding the utmost virtuosity, and nobody can be equally effective in all of them. But some come closer than others, and Annie Fischer comes closest of all.
Fischer (1914-95) was Hungarian, a child prodigy who quickly established an international reputation. She only played in the U.S. for one or two seasons, so we know her work mainly from her relatively few recordings, but those who heard her in concert speak in glowing terms of the spontaneity, power, and beauty of her performances, of her passionate musicality, and of the intensity of her communication with her audiences. She depended always on the inspiration of the moment, never playing a piece the same way twice, and she disliked the emotional sterility of the recording studio. Her way of dealing with this problem was typically idiosyncratic: she recorded only in short takes, repeating them many times in a search for expressive precision (rather than technical perfection), and reluctantly allowing them to be spliced together – though you'd never know it from the seamless flow of the music on these discs.
The provenance of these recordings is unclear. They were commissioned by Hungaroton following a series of concerts in 1976/77 in which she played all the sonatas, and she continued to work on them until the end of her life. Never satisfied, she refused to allow their release, and the program booklet says that "final repairs" were made after her death. In any event, what we hear is quite remarkable – deeply felt, very personal, powerful, and passionate. There are felicities at very turn, far too many to list here. Her tempos are rather fast but never hurried, and her ability to attend to details while maintaining tension, to shape a phrase within a solid framework, and to give natural expression to the spirit of the music, are altogether exceptional.
The only other set that is comparable in musical terms is Schnabel's, but its 1930s sound disqualifies it for most of today's listeners. Goode is generally more ingratiating, Kempff lighter and more deft, Frank and Taub more stolid and Germanic; all of these are really very good, but none of them rises to Fischer's level of consistent excellence. The only drawback to her set is the somewhat dry and hard-edged sound of the piano, but that's easily overcome by the sheer beauty of her performances.
Copyright © 1999, Alexander J. Morin