Icon: Edwin Fischer

Stephen Cera
Monday, January 9, 2023

Celebrating the qualities of his playing and the many and varied achievements of this Swiss pianist, Stephen Cera highlights the fact that he deserves greater recognition as an innovator

Edwin Fischer (Bridgeman Images)
Edwin Fischer (Bridgeman Images)

‘I worshipped Fischer from the beginning,’ said Claudio Arrau. ‘His playing sprang from a childlike nature, yet … it also possessed all the wisdom of the experienced master,’ Alfred Brendel observed. ‘He played the Mozart concertos exactly as they should be played,’ wrote Daniel Barenboim. The subject of these accolades was the Basel-born pianist Edwin Fischer (1886-1960), who specialised in the German repertory from Bach to Brahms. Equally at home as a soloist, in chamber music and as a Lieder pianist, he also loved to conduct. His wide-ranging career embraced editing works by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, and composing his own songs, piano pieces and cadenzas. Fischer wrote books on Beethoven’s piano sonatas and Bach, and a 1949 volume of ‘reflections on music’ (Musikalische Betrachtungen). Later, he became an inspiring teacher of, among others, the young Brendel and Paul Badura-Skoda, and Barenboim benefited from his masterclasses.

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Today he remains perhaps one of the less-heralded major musician-pianists of the last century, and deserves recognition as an innovator. Nowadays, we are accustomed to performances and recordings of Mozart piano concertos conducted from the keyboard, but it was not always so. Fischer was a pioneer of this practice, and had a key role in the development of Mozart interpretation in the early years of the 20th century.

Mozart’s piano concertos were rarely performed then, except for the stormy K466 in D minor, which had inspired Beethoven. (Most virtuosos found them insufficiently showy.) Fischer was one of their foremost advocates. To conduct them successfully from the keyboard, he believed that one must first learn to conduct independently and not rely on the quality of the orchestra. In other words, the soloist should also be able to conduct a Mozart symphony. Only if you can both conduct and play, he told the young Barenboim, can you achieve a homogeneity not easily attained with a separate conductor.

Fischer brought unfamiliar Mozart to concert audiences throughout Europe, and made some of the first recordings

Fischer brought unfamiliar Mozart to concert audiences throughout Europe, and made some of the first recordings. In 1930 he formed his own chamber orchestra of Berlin musicians, at least partly to realise his overall conception of the concertos and to conduct the symphonies. Today it is almost startling to read him urging pianists to play, among other works, the ‘rarely heard’ concertos K271, K414, K453 and K503.

In his self-conducted Mozart concerto recordings, Fischer deploys an ensemble whose reduced size reflects a historical awareness unusual in the 1930s, except from 18th-century specialists such as Wanda Landowska. Although he recorded Mozart concertos with different orchestras and conductors, it is the self-led performances with the Edwin Fischer CO that provide the clearest indication of Fischer’s ideas on Mozart style.

Listen to the variations finale in his 1937 recording of the K453 Concerto in G with his own chamber orchestra, and hear how he relishes the buffo element with nervous energy. He also interprets the Rondo in D, K382, with childlike vivaciousness, imbuing it with improvisatory excitement and vitality enlivened by buoyant rhythms.

In the Mozart D minor Concerto, which he played, conducted and recorded with the LPO in 1933, Fischer at once establishes a taut atmosphere, and provides an unerring sense of the destination of phrases through accent and shading. (He also inserts his own first-movement cadenza rather than Beethoven’s more familiar one.)

Speaking of Beethoven, Fischer made a bracing 1951 studio recording of the Beethoven Emperor Concerto with Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. He and Furtwängler can also be heard in a live wartime recording of the Brahms Second Piano Concerto, in which the demanding solo writing may stretch Fischer’s technique, though the grand Brahmsian rhetoric still soars.

As a chamber musician, he formed a trio with German violinist Georg Kulenkampff and Italian cellist Enrico Mainardi (after the death of Kulenkampff in 1948, Viennese violinist Wolfgang Schneiderhan joined the group). Listen to Fischer play the opening of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Archduke Piano Trio (live in 1952), with the chords perfectly balanced, the phrases shaped with masterful control.

Like Artur Schnabel, Fischer disliked making records, saying the ‘eavesdropping’ of microphones interrupted his musical process. The studio seemed to inhibit him. Deeply thoughtful, he was perhaps a less explicitly intellectual musician than Schnabel. His playing never calls attention to itself, yet temperament, daring and flashes of insight coexist with the profoundly reflective qualities.

To his students, Fischer was a kind person whose humanity shone through. They praised his beautiful legato playing and pellucid tone quality. The purity he exhibited seems relatively unimportant today in a world of piano competitions, marketing and a lifestyle that detaches many pianists from great literature and the visual arts – a world very different from the one inhabited by Fischer.

Defining moments

• 1904 – Begins studies in Berlin

Taught piano by Martin Krause, a Liszt pupil who later teaches Claudio Arrau, at Stern Conservatory, Berlin. Upon graduation, 1905, is invited to teach there. Later appears as soloist under Willem Mengelberg, Felix Weingartner, Arthur Nikisch, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Bruno Walter

• 1930 – Orchestral manoeuvres

Having already held conducting positions in Lübeck (1926-28) and Munich (1928-32), forms own chamber orchestra of Berlin players (Edwin Fischer Chamber Orchestra). Goes on to record Mozart and Bach with them, becoming one of the first well-known pianists to direct an orchestra from the keyboard

• 1931 – Schnabel’s successor

Joins staff of Hochschüle für Musik, Berlin, until 1935

• 1933– A Bach recording first

Commences first complete recording on the piano of The Well-Tempered Clavier, a project that continues until 1936. It remains one of the finest complete recordings on the piano, admired for its reflective and inspirational qualities, though by today’s standards may not be historically informed in terms of ornamentation and Baroque style

• 1942/43 – Returns to native Switzerland

After Second World War, reappears throughout Europe as soloist and in chamber music. Devotes much of later life to teaching, holding masterclasses in Lucerne and Salzburg with a number of distinguished pupils including Alfred Brendel, who in a 1960 essay recalls: ‘As a teacher, Fischer was electrifying by his mere presence’

• 1950 – Marks bicentenary of Bach’s death

Plays all the keyboard concertos in concerts in London and around Europe

• 1954 – Discovers serious health issues

Stops performing in public. Dies Zurich, January 24, 1960

Essential recording

‘Mozart Piano Concertos – Complete Studio Recordings, 1933-47’


This includes five Mozart concertos, the Rondo in D and some solo pieces, plus Haydn’s Concerto in D. Fischer doubles as conductor in some concertos. His 1947 Concerto in C, K503 (Philharmonia Orchestra / Josef Krips), was the first post-war version and played an important part in establishing the piece in the repertoire. The set offers an invaluable overview of Fischer’s approach to Mozart.

This article originally appeared in the December 2022 issue of Gramophone magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

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