May 29, 2014
(++++) PERSONAL INTERPRETATIONS
Schumann: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Platz conducted by Karl-Heinz Steffens. Coviello. $32.99 (2 SACDs).
Annie Fischer: The Centennial Collection—Music of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Liszt. Annie Fischer, piano. Hungaroton. $49.99 (3 CDs).
Even when music is well-known – perhaps especially when it is well-known – the personal touch in interpreting it is crucial for it to continue having an effect on listeners who may be quite familiar with it and may even have become jaded through overexposure to mundane performances. There are, for example, innumerable readings of Schumann’s symphonies available, including some very fine ones, and on the face of it, it may be difficult to understand the attraction of a cycle led by Karl-Heinz Steffens (former principal clarinetist of the Berlin Philharmonic) and featuring an orchestra that is comparatively unfamiliar outside its Rhineland-Palatinate home region. But this exceptionally well-recorded two-disc Coviello set is a real surprise package, with both conductor and orchestra playing Schumann with a freshness and verve that make this recording one of the very best available. In No. 1, the “Spring” symphony, for example, Steffens provides unusually strong tempo contrast between the Scherzo and its Trio components, producing a genuinely speedy reading that then stands in excellent contrast to a finale taken at a slower-than-usual tempo, with an exceptional sense of dancelike lyricism and some really marvelous horn playing. In No. 2, Steffens takes an unusual approach to the problematic first movement, neither speeding it up to get through its thematic awkwardness nor dwelling on it unduly, but accepting the Allegro ma non troppo tempo indication and bringing out instrumental details that make it more interesting than it usually is. The flowing warmth of this symphony’s slow movement fully justifies the Adagio espressivo marking, which is strongly contrasted with a finale that strides forth strongly and at a deliberate pace that provides plenty of opportunity for lyricism. For No. 3, the “Rhenish,” Steffens plunges into the symphony with a tempo that at first seems a trifle too speedy but that soon proves well-chosen for its heightened exuberance. The horns, a major strength of this orchestra, are especially effective throughout this symphony, and the contrast between the solemnity of the fourth movement and the liveliness of the brass-imbued finale is particularly well handled. No. 4 builds well from the start, becoming increasingly involving and emotive as it progresses, without the heaviness that comes through in certain performances as a result of Schumann’s somewhat overdone 1851 reorchestration (the symphony’s decade-earlier version, which is rarely played, is a good deal more transparent). The finale is particularly impressive here, with a jaunty lightness and lovely woodwind touches that lead to a genuinely dramatic and exciting coda. The fact that Steffens takes all exposition repeats throughout the set allows the music to breathe and expand as Schumann intended, and these performances as a whole are very effective in reflecting not only the personal views of the conductor but also the highly individual compositional approach of Schumann himself.
The personal elements are even more to the fore in Annie Fischer: The Centennial Collection, which pays tribute to Fischer (1914-1985) through re-releases of her versions of a variety of piano works for whose interpretation she was noted. Fischer had a rather curious relationship with recordings, believing that any performance without an audience present was steeped in artificiality – she was far more comfortable playing for people than for microphones, and made a point during her lifetime of stating that no single performance was ever finished or definitive. This attitude was something of a throwback to the one of many artists in early recording days, but Fischer, holding it sincerely, really made only one significant all-studio recording: that of the complete Beethoven sonatas, which she worked on for 15 years and would not allow to be released during her lifetime (it was made available after her death and has been widely praised). The result of Fischer’s beliefs is that many of her recordings, including those collected by Hungaroton in 1991 and now available again to mark the centennial of Fischer’s birth, are a decidedly mixed bag, inevitably showing her thoughtfulness and technical excellence at the piano but not always matching her ideally with orchestras or conductors and, unfortunately, often being presented in subpar sound. Annie Fischer: The Centennial Collection includes four works with orchestra and four solo-piano pieces, the latter on the whole being somewhat more involving. They are Mozart’s Fantasy and Fugue in C minor, K. 394, Schubert’s Impromptu in F minor, Op. 142, No. 1, D935/1 and Sonata in B-flat, D960, and Liszt’s Sonata in B minor. The grand-scale Schubert and Liszt works, which share the third CD here, really show Fischer’s musicality, interpretative sure-handedness and emotional depth. They are marred only by less-than-stellar sound, which unfortunately is an issue throughout this collection. The contrast between Mozart’s K. 394 and the Schubert Impromptu is also a very pleasant and accomplished one. Those works share a CD with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, which gets a stately, intelligent and sure-fingered reading that, however, never quite catches fire. The remaining works here are on an all-Mozart disc: Piano Concertos Nos. 20 and 21 and the Rondo in D, K. 382. Fischer was a Mozart interpreter of the first rank, and these readings indicate why: they seem straightforward when first heard, but repeated listenings show that this is because Fischer handles the music with studied artlessness, making no attempt to push or expand it but allowing it to flow with natural, unforced elegance. Although the below-par sound of this release results in a (+++) rating, listeners interested in a musical profile of one of the major pianistic talents of the middle of the 20th century will welcome it for the considerable insights it brings into Fischer’s abilities and that she in turn brings, through her skills, to the music itself.