Transcendental Art: Annie Fischer’s complete cycle of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas

Last year I wrote about how I rather enjoyed the first three volumes of Annie Fischer’s nine-volume set of Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas on Hungaroton. I am now able to report that I absolutely love the complete set. I was hoping to complete the set by the end of the year, but after repeated listening to the first three discs, it became evident to me that such a delay would be inhumane and unacceptable. I therefore indulged myself by completing the cycle as soon as possible. Fortunately, another two discs were given to me as gifts, so I was able to defer part of the cost, or rather, to spend it on even more Annie Fischer CDs. My collection now includes 15 discs by her.

In addition to the indulgence of buying the full-priced set much earlier than initially hoped, I also allowed myself the extraordinary luxury of listening to all of the sonatas, in opus number order no less, over a three evening period so as to write a fresh view on all of the works. As I just finished last night, here goes:

This set of Beethoven’s piano sonatas is an absolute masterpiece. Every performance is wonderful, the quality of the performances ranging from great to nearly life altering. Do I wax too poetic? I think not. This is music making of the highest possible order, transcending all other comparable sets of any works by any composer that I have ever heard. Bryce Morrison recently wrote a rather glowing overview of Annie Fischer’s works in Gramophone. He did not go far enough. These recordings simply defy adequate praise. Perfection is too light a term to apply.

Enough of the hyperbolic (to you cynics) lead in: it’s time for the nitty-gritty. So how exactly does Ms. Fischer’s ultimate recorded achievement fare with respect to the specific constituent works? Well, I’ll start with the highlights. (This is gonna be long, so hang in there.)

Her Opus 57 sweeps the board. No other version I have heard even comes close. There has been no more passionate Appassionata before or since. I have heard roughly a dozen or so versions, many on the local radio station, and they all pale in comparison. As luck would have it, while taking a break from my formal listening, Mikhail Pletnev’s 1988 recording of the work blared through the speakers. Blah. Now, it is not a bad performance, but in comparison it is pale and lifeless. Not even the Titans of the keyboard can match this version. Not Schnabel. Not Kempff. Not even Gieseking. (At least in the versions I have heard.)

Next up are the early sonatas, from Opus 2 through Opus 10. Annie Fischer is the unquestioned master of the early sonatas. Each one is so well played, so insightful – indeed, even revelatory – that she elevates the works to be on the same level as some of his later works. There is playfulness, energy, enthusiasm, power, rebelliousness, and even some hints of angst that so many other interpreters leave out. Or do not know is there. Granted, there are fewer versions of these works than of some of the later sonatas, but her majesty and control and outright superior musicianship are evident throughout. Now, with the Opus 7, I was expecting that Michelangeli’s truly masterful account on DG (with Brahms and Schubert) would offer up some competition. It does. But Annie prevails. Hers is faster, more agile, more expressive. Granted, Michelangeli trumps her in terms of sheer technical perfection, but he cannot deliver the whole sonata as well.

Then there are the Opus 31 sonatas. These are underrated, in my humble opinion. They are not Ludwig van’s greatest works, but they are original; they sound like nothing else he, or anyone else, wrote. The third one gets especially insightful treatment. And of course the little Beethoveninian bon-bons that are the opus 49 (both 1 and 2, thank you) and 54 are revealed as more significant that one may imagine. The Opus 49, number 2 is played with such brio and charm that one just wants to hit the repeat button for that delightful little melody in the second movement. Either that or rummage around for the septet. (I recommend the Raphael Ensemble’s version on Hyperion.) The 54 is delivered with power and poise.

What of the Hammerklavier? Oh, it’s here alright, and it is stupendous. Never has the Adagio had such sustained intensity and focus, and an ability to draw me in so completely. This work lives in another plane of existence. That written, here she has some very formidable competition. Let’s just start with Pollini and his mid-70s recordings on DG. In terms of sheer technical prowess, he, like his vaunted teacher, outdoes little Annie. His control and absolute precision are truly awesome, his delivery enough to silence all critics. Can there ever be a better rendition of that massive fugue? Probably not. That written, I still give the nod, though ever so slightly, to Annie. And what of Brendel, or Ashkenazy, or any number of others? Well, I have only listened to about a half dozen others, and after Fischer and Pollini, all others are also-rans. Good, great, titanic, even, but also-rans all the same.

And then we arrive at the triumvirate of piano sonatas. The last three works should be the ultimate destination for all fans of solo piano music. Sublime to the point of super-human artistic achievement. And that’s with a mundane performance. Annie’s are anything but mundane. All three are simply perfect. Oh sure, more precise playing is possible, but none more musically satisfying; none more revealing of the nature of this music. As with the Opus 106, there are ample competitors out there. Pollini again poses the greatest challenge, especially in the Opus 111. Here, I declare them equal. Pollini and Fischer represent entirely different approaches, but both are valid, both are transcendental. And there are others. I believe that it is more difficult in the late works to be as clearly superior as in the early sonatas, but boy can she deliver the goods.

Not all of the works are so transcendent. Remember, I said she also provide some merely great performances. Take the Waldstein, please (bada-bing!). I must say that the first two movements can meander a little, though she offers up a tremendous closing movement. I offer up John O’Conor’s version on Telarc as an alternative, and a wonderful one at that.

The Moonlight sonata (and its twin Opus 27 work) has been better served elsewhere. Take Annie’s own early 60s recording on EMI for instance. The finale there is more fleet of finger, more inspired. And then, Gieseking’s super budget stereo version (only $4) on EMI also offers up better playing, even though he was clearly past his inimitable prime. (Interestingly, an Italian label recently released a premium priced boxed set of all but 4 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas from the late 40s. I may have to come up with the cash.) Since the Mondschein has been recorded gajilion times, there are bound to be better versions.

The Pastorale sonata is tremendous, but not in a class of its own. While at work I had the opportunity to hear the best version I have heard on the radio, but I cannot remember the pianist’s name at this time. (It was a 1957 recording.) If I find out who it was I will let all who are interested know. Hell, even Barenboim can offer up a world-class Pastorale. So let’s just say she is great here.

And then there are the remaining works. All great. All worthy of repeated hearings. As evidence of her ability to convey the power of the music, when I finished listening each night, I did not want to saunter off to bed. I wanted to hear more. And when the full set was done, I seriously entertained thoughts of starting over again. If I attempted to read or otherwise give less than full attention to the music, I was always pulled in completely, compelled to defer all other activities until the music piping through the speakers was complete. I drifted off into a wonderful place where all that mattered was the here and now. (Or, perhaps the there and then.) Or perhaps the next note.

Last year (or maybe the first week of this year) I also wrote of how Wilhelm Kempff’s complete set of Schubert’s piano sonatas was an incredible achievement. I believe I described it as “heavenly music, divinely played.” Well, I stand by that statement. But this set transcends that. It proves, for me at least, that Beethoven stands alone at the apex of the solo keyboard repertoire.

So, if you are interested, where should you start? I very strongly suggest volumes 1, 3, or 7 to start. This will let you know if you are apt to be spellbound by Annie’s playing as I have been. Keep in mind, these are not technically perfect. She misses a few notes. The tempi can be less than letter perfect. There are some less than ideal edits. The sound varies, sometimes between movements, sometimes even within movements, owing no doubt to the protracted amount of time needed to record this cycle. (Overall, the sound is far more than adequate, by the way.) If you crave total technical precision, or ham-fisted quasi-interpretations, go for Pollini or Kovacevich (wink), but I do not believe you can go far wrong with Annie. In fact, you cannot go wrong at all.

Suffice it to write, even when Annie is “only” great, she is inspirational. Taken as a whole, this is the set I cannot live without out. (Of course, I cannot live without Pollini or Gieseking or Brendel, either.) I cannot boldly proclaim this the best complete set ever. That just is not possible with Beethoven. I have not yet had the good fortune of hearing all of Schnabel’s early 30s recordings, or Gieseking’s aforementioned nearly complete cycle, or Kempff’s ‘53 mono cycle on DG, though from what I have heard, they start a little in the hole. (I will be getting that Schnabel set as soon as possible.) Annie Fisher’s Beethoven cycle is one of the monumental artistic achievements in the history of recorded music. No praise can do it justice.

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