About this Recording
8.110651-52 - BACH, J.S.: Well-Tempered Clavier (The), Book 1 (Fischer) (1933-1934)
English 

J. S. Bach (1685 -1750): The Well-Tempered Clavier: Book I

 

Edwin Fischer represented an ideal middle ground between objective intellectualism and unabashed romanticism. Two contrasting figures proved highly influential on the young Swiss pianist's development: Ferruccio Busoni, whose classical approach Fischer greatly appreciated, and that wildly romantic sprit, Eugen d' Albert. Fischer viewed the differing philosophies of these two great artists as complementary to one another and was able to incorporate aspects of both into his own playing. His interpretations were always logically thought out, yet, ultimately, guided by the heart and the ear.

 

Born in Basle, Switzerland on 6th October, 1886, Fischer's musical talent became evident at an early age: when only four years old he struck a note on the piano and stated, correctly, "This is G." The following year his father died, leaving Fischer's mother to take charge of his musical training. In 1896 Fischer began formal studies at the Basle Conservatory. He moved to Berlin in 1904 with his mother and enrolled at the Stern Conservatory, studying piano with Martin Krause, who was one of Liszt's last pupils and later the principal teacher of Claudio Arrau. Over the next several decades Fischer slowly built up a reputation as one of Europe's leading pianists, often collaborating with the continent's most important conductors, including Nikisch, Mengelberg and Furtwangler. Fischer was also a sought-after chamber musician, and even formed a highly successful trio with violinist Georg Kulenkampff and cellist Enrico Mainardi (Wolfgang Schneiderhan joined the trio after Kulenkampff's death in 1948). It was at this same time that he created the Edwin Fischer Chamber Orchestra. As leader of the ensemble, Fischer did not limit himself solely to conducting concertos from the keyboard; symphonic works by Haydn, Mozart and others were frequently programmed.

 

Born in Basel, Switzerland on 6th October, 1886, Fischer's musical talent became evident at an early age when only four years old he struck a note on the piano and stated, correctly, "This is G." The following year his father died, leaving Fischer's mother to take charge of his musical training In 1896 Fischer began formal studies at the Basel Conservatory. He moved to Berlin in 1904 with his mother and enrolled at the Stern Conservatory, studying piano with Martin Krause, who was one of Liszt's last pupils and later the principal teacher of Claudio Arrau. Over the next several decades Fischer slowly built up a reputation as one of Europe's leading pianists, often collaborating with the continent's most important conductors, including Nikisch, Mengelberg and Furtwaengler Fischer was also a sought-after chamber musician, and even formed a highly successful trio with violinist Georg Kulenkampff and cellist Enrico Mainardi (Wolfgang Schneiderhan joined the trio after Kulenkampff's death in 1948). It was at this same time that he created the Edwin Fischer Chamber Orchestra As leader of the ensemble, Fischer did not limit himself solely to conducting concertos from the keyboard; symphonic works by Haydn, Mozart and others were frequently programmed.

 

In 1931 Fischer began a long association with the HMV recording company. Over the next eleven years he made many of his finest recordings, among which were Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier and Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, Beethoven's Pathetique and Appassionata sonatas, Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy and Impromptus, Handel's Suite in D minor and several Mozart Piano Concertos. His recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier was considered a landmark achievement - no other pianist had recorded the complete Well-Tempered Clavier, and for many years Fischer remained the only pianist to have done so. Even today, more than 65 years after its release, it is still considered one of the finest recordings of Bach's masterwork.

 

The outbreak of World War II soon put Fischer's recording career on hold, and in 1943, after his Berlin home was bombed, he moved back to Switzerland. He still managed to playa limited number of concerts, but it was not until 1947 that he once again began recording for HMV in London. Over the next several years health problems (including high blood pressure) began to take their toll, and Fischer was forced to reduce his professional activities. By 1954 paralysis was setting in and his health had deteriorated to the point that he could barely play the piano. After a long period of illness he died on 24th January, 1960 in a Zurich hospital.

 

Fischer's Bach is exceptional both for its beauty and its logic. The ethereal quality of his tone in legato and pianissimo passages seems to defy the instrument's inherently percussive nature, and in several selections Fischer's tone quality results in a quasi-religious serenity. Examples of this include the Preludes and Fugues in C sharp minor, B flat minor and B major, as well as the Fugues in F minor, F sharp minor and B minor. Running sixteenth-note or semi-quaver accompaniments, which can sound so banal in lesser pianists' hands, are masterfully shaped and controlled; the results can be entrancing or even evocative of such imagery as flowing water (the A major Fugue, for example), An aspect of Fischer's interpretations not often commented on is their playfulness - one could hardly imagine a more delightful rendition of the C sharp major Prelude. Neither are the contrapuntal intricacies of Bach's writing overlooked. Textures are remarkably clear, with every voice distinct and audible. Harmonic changes are subtly coloured (the left-hand chords of the E flat minor Prelude, for instance), and the phrasing is naturally free without resort to fussiness or exaggeration.

 

Today Fischer is sometimes criticized for his departures from the written text. In the Well-Tempered Clavier there are numerous places where he doubles bass lines by adding the lower octave note. Usually the passages where he employs this device are carefully chosen for musical reasons. In the F minor Fugue, for example, the final statement of the fugue subject is doubled in order to create a darker and more powerful ending. At other times the reason may simply be cadential emphasis. The most extreme example of octave doubling occurs in the B minor Prelude-the entire left-hand part is played in octaves.

 

During Fischer's time there was little objection to this sort of textual alteration, but the mid to late twentieth-century movement towards historical 'authenticity' and strict adherence to the score has resulted in a more puritanical attitude towards such liberties. However, the 21st century is already showing signs of a rebellion against the historically unjustified concept of the score being sacred, and the resurgence of interest in historical recordings continues to be an important contributing factor towards this reversal of opinion

 

Farhan Malik


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