Bach Well Tempered Clavier, Book 1
Edwin Fischer’s 1933-36 HMV set of Bach’s 48 was the first recording by a pianist of the set, and it remains the finest of all. Fischer might well have agreed with Andras Schiff that Bach is the ‘most romantic of all composers’, for his superfine musicianship seems to live and breathe in another world, ether or ambience. His sonority is as ravishing as it is apt, never beautiful for its own sake, and graced with a pedal technique so subtle that it results in a light and shade, a subdued sparkle or pointed sense of repartee that eludes lesser artists. Again, no matter what complexity Bach throws at him, Fischer resolves it with a disarming poise and limpidity, qualities as natural as they are profound.
All this is a far cry from, say, Glenn Gould’s egotism in the 48, or the sort of performances that can make genius a pejorative term. Fischer – a blessedly naive artist who told his students to forget ‘the material, working world and be on intimate terms with trees, clouds and winds’ – showed a deep humility before great art, making the singling out of one or another of his performances an impertinence. Impossible, however, not to mention in passing his ethereal start to the set (that light, bouncing staccato above a singing bass-line in No 1), or the disconsolate, phantom yet ordered voice he achieves in No 4. The contrapuntal flow of No 7 – initially grand, then reflective and finally free-wheeling – is realised to perfection, and what a virtuoso play of the elements he recreates in No 15!
Turning to Book 2, you could hardly imagine a more seraphic utterance in No 3, later contrasted with the most skittish allegro reply. The list goes on indefinitely, dissolving the supposed barriers between one form of music and another: ‘baroque’, ‘classical’, ‘romantic’, even ‘impressionist’, become terms of convenience rather than accuracy once you have heard Fischer’s Bach. He did, indeed, possess a touch with ‘the strength and softness of a lion’s velvet paw’, and I know of few recordings from which today’s generation of pianists could learn so much; could absorb by osmosis, so to speak, his way of transforming a supposedly learned tome into a fountain of limitless magic and resource. Here, then, is Fischer at his most sublimely poised and unruffled, offered at Naxos’s bargain price in beautifully restored sound