Guest Writer, Ateş Orga

A hundred years ago the BBC’s core founding values – to inform, educate and entertain, in that order (John Reith was exacting) – made for a distinctive kind of promotion and programming continuing well beyond the Second World War. All those helpful articles in Radio Times (later The Listener), the 250-word snapshots of the repertory – finding myself as a young writer in the company of august minds and Establishment venerables. Then there was Antony Hopkins and his Talking about Music half-hours (1954-92): the man and his mellifluous voice penetrated deep recesses with smile, charm and self-effacement. How many of us learnt from him? How many knew that in his student days as a pianist and composer at the RCM during the early-forties he’d won the Chappell Gold Medal and Cobbett Memorial Prize? I remember attending a Stravinsky lecture of his – a disarming display of complexities demystified. He never got his due amongst the academic community, his light touch mistaken for shallowness of thought. Defining taste, establishing models, a raft of BBC ‘house’ pianists guided my generation. Ronald Smith, Malcolm Binns, Peter Katin, Colin Horsley, Ann Schein, Valerie Tryon, David Wilde, Nerine Barrett, Nina Milkina, Liza Fuchsova, John Ogdon, Maria Donska, Edith Vogel, Katharina Wolpe, Norma Fisher … others whose names for now elude me. Ronald’s Alkan fired my imagination, Valerie was my pin-up, Nerine was the Johann Christian Bach girl, Nina had a way with Mozart and Chopin … I composed some serial contrapuncti for Katharina … Maria failed my ARCM, neither my Beethoven Opus Seven nor Chopin Berceuse approaching the standards she lived her art by …

“I don’t think I was ever a ‘thinking pianist’ … in the sense that I would plan, plot, organise, analyse … my way round would be always … to just play, to look at the music … to read it as one reads a book … and my hands would follow. Then to think about it afterwards … ‘pure animal instinct’ or whatever you want to call it.” Norma Fisher was born in the first months of war to a Jewish family in Shepherd’s Bush. May 11, 1940. A refugee fleeing the pogroms in Vilna (Vilnius) her Lithuanian father had arrived in Edwardian London in 1903, her mother coming around the same time from near Warsaw. Lithuania and Poland were then both part of Romanov Russia – “Russia is in my soul”. Her Orthodox father, unable to speak English, was given the name ‘Fisher’ by the British authorities. “Until recently our original name was not known. But a cousin in Israel recently discovered our roots (way back, 18th century) are German, and that the family name was (horror) Führer or Firer or Forer [Furer: Yiddish ‘coachman’]”. Her mother’s family name was ‘Hertz’. “Given my lifelong connection with the German Romantics, it was an amazing discovery since, being of [presumed] Russian-Polish descent, I’ve always wondered where that innate understanding came from!? The strength of my passion for Brahms and Schumann?”.

In 1951, aged eleven, she began studies with Sidney Harrison at the Guildhall School of Music (as it then was). Like Hopkins, Harrison was a busy pianist and broadcaster, a post-Tovey populariser in the business of approachable music appreciation. He’d studied with Francesco Berger, a disciple of Moscheles in Germany; and with the legendary Orlando Morgan – whose pupils in a career of over sixty years had embraced the generations from Myra Hess and Noël Coward to Harold Truscott. In 1954 Norma was taken up by Gina Bachauer, “such an incredible woman”, who introduced her to Ilona Kabos, Louis Kentner’s wife and a formidable “merciless” teacher steeped in the Liszt tradition and issues Hungarian (her teacher Árpád Szendy had been a late Weimar student of the Abbé). “She made me think for myself, to become aware and think to listen, how to listen, and how to find sound.” Another mentor, another Hungarian, was Annie Fischer (1956) – “whose playing was just to die for”. Debussy-decisive wisdom came from Jacques Février in Paris. In Bolzano in 1961 she came joint-second to Jerome Rose at the Busoni Competition. Two years later, aged twenty-three, sharing a Harriet Cohen International Music Award with Ashkenazy, she made her Proms debut with Norman Del Mar and the Philharmonia, playing Liszt’s Second Concerto, the Albert Hall in its old acoustically resonant pre-‘flying saucer’ state.

In the absence of commercial recordings (where were Decca, EMI, Hyperion, the boutique newcomers?), hunting down Norma’s performances, similarly measuring the breadth of her repertory, isn’t straightforward. The British Library Sound Archive lists currently thirty-one BBC-related titles, including duplications. The Radio Times/BBC Genome Programme Index lists eighty-one, including duplications but with work omissions where information is lacking. Re-mastered at Abbey Road Studios by Andrew J. Holdsworth and the Japanese producer Tomoyuki Sawado, Sonetto Classics’ three volumes of solo material, spanning 1969-92, are thus, so far, all we have. An invaluable resource. “My [BBC] producers were mainly Stephen Plaistow, Leo Black, Paul Hamburger (principally Brahms, Schumann) and, of course, Alan Walker for my Liszt. They were the best!!!! I adored them and they me. I was truly privileged!!”.

Recording, usually but not invariably in Maida Vale, wasn’t a process without tension. Studio time was miserly, typically ninety minutes to record a sixty-minute programme. Tape editing (twelve-inch reels, cutting block, razor blade, spliced joins) was kept to a minimum (topping and tailing, the occasional essential patch), broadcasting philosophy maintaining that generating LP ‘perfection’ wasn’t the aim. Concert allusion/actuality was. “The pressure was great. Discipline was required. The pianist had to be prepared” (Walker). “I used to hate everything I did. After every broadcast, I always wanted to throw myself off the nearest bridge, because I always felt it wasn’t good enough. It was a complete agony. How my producers put up with me, I don’t know!”. Hans Keller, sharp of tongue, wasn’t always receptive to her pleas – though, like everyone else in Yalding House, he knew only too well that what one got from her was “spontaneous music making of a high order – interpretations captured on the wing, so to say, which one generally hears only in the concert hall” (Walker). “You,” he wrote in a curt missive, “are the greatest fusspot in the history of Western (including Middle East) civilisation, and that is saying something: I am probably the second greatest. What you regard as your disastrous [Mozart] performance is certainly going out”.

Volume I, SONCLA003 (2018). This contrasts Brahms’s pair of Variations, Opus 21 (b/c February 2, 1979) with a Scriabin centenary compilation coupling four of the Opus 42 Studies with the First Sonata (Valentine’s Day 1972, learnt for the occasion). Fantasy and free spirit, the full-throttle vision of young geniuses unleashed, a bold range of keyboard colours lighting the way, from delicate brush-strokes to gruff gesture to grandeur and tragedy. Leschetizky was fond of generalising that “from the English he expects good musicians, good workers, and bad executants; doing by work what the Slav does by instinct; their heads serving them better than their hearts” (Annette Hullah, 1921). In Norma he would have recognised someone ‘English’ only in name not anima, not merely “good” but riveting, not “bad” but brilliant. This ‘Girl of the North Wind’ takes Scriabin’s F-minor Sonata to rugged heights, Bryce Morrison in his booklet essay headily recalling a South Bank performance she was to give a decade or so later. “Mesmerizing in its magisterial command, its empathy for Scriabin’s early high-blown rhetoric; a cry against fate, against God. But it was in the final Funèbre that memory remains indelible. This all-Russian funeral with its mysterious niente, a glimpse into nothing, was given with such conviction that you saw, as it were, ‘a princely funeral, the palanquin and horses heads nodding with black ostrich plumes, the pall bearers swarthily muffled to their tearless eyes’.”

Volume II, SONCLA004 (2019, Liszt Ferenc International Grand Prix du Disque). Listening to this double-CD collection – “another life, another person” Norma calls it – enriches the human condition. “My whole desire [as a young woman] was to be taken over by – transported by – whatever I played.” That’s the experience we get, what, inexplicably, we become a part of. Schumann’s G-minor Sonata (March 1, 1984, with original Finale) is noble, dynamic, yearning, intimately fragile, structured, intense – a bard at the helm, steering by the Pole Star. Three nuanced Debussy Études (February 2, 1979) descry a faded Gallic age, Février’s performance directions, likely from the author himself, slanting the interpretation. Analytically focussed, André Tchaikowsky’s Inventions Opus Two (the eleven-movement version, from the Schumann broadcast) are rigorously detailed, glassy in attack, sparingly pedalled, not a note without function or personal investment. Like Radu Lupu and Stephen Kovacevich, Norma had faith in Tchaikowsky. (The touch and characterisation, the generosity, of a 1986 account of her playing his Piano Concerto, with the Tivoli Summer Orchestra under Uri Segal, is unmistakable.)

Her Liszt – Mephisto WaltzVenezia e NapoliMazeppa and the F-minor Transcendental – is dumbfounding: a cocktail of jewelled pianism and bared imagination, of agonisingly beautiful phrases breathing and soaring, of timbres and emotions, weighted communications from within, variegated through the registers. “A spirit takes hold and that’s it, almost as if I had no say, no control.” Baltic Jewish meets Slavic Roma. Alan Walker (I’ve never thought to ask him) must surely have been transfixed by the visceral charisma, the Olympian span of her Mazeppa, its rockface pianism traversed without a safety net – Mazeppa, the voice and deed of Ukrainian Resistance, Romanticism’s symbol of perennial youth in search of love and liberty, possessed by power, burnt by passion (August 15, 1970). Eric Wetherell, producing, can only have gloried in the vulcanism of the Napoli ‘Tarantella’  the ecstasy, the cypress-shaded languor, the coloratura projection, the cadenzas and cadences, the ‘third eye’ perception (BBC Bristol; May 24, 1985). Twenty-four-carat Lisztiana of a chemistry you might hear but once or twice. Majesty, poetry, wonderment defined, performer, listener and instrument consumed by arcs of electricity.

Vol III, SONCLA006 (2022). Performances, like performers, come and go. Some stay – emotional, spiritual, physical, associative, referential markers in our lives, suffusing our memory banks. A handful remind that the formative process is an open-ended affair unfettered by time, that we are shaped as much by our twilight as our dawn and high-noon years. Most weigh anchor for other harbours – sound-ships of the night sailing seas of no particular revelation. Norma’s latest volume, the best-mastered of the three, enshrines greatness. I cannot imagine, have rarely heard, Schumann’s Papillons or Brahms’s Opus 116 Fantasien paced (or spaced) so superbly (July 18, 1984). Tone, voicing, the depth and engine of the bass lines, the rhythm and breathing of the rubato, the inflection and accenting/sub-accenting of telling intervals (Cooke/Language of Music crossing one’s conscience), the delivery of phrases, characterised with all the power, intimacy and dramatic reflection of a grand classical actor, conjure an extraordinary landscape, Norma traversing deep into her favourite German territory. Responding today she’s not uncritical of her playing, but she’s also wondrous. “How did I do that?” Papillons is a masterclass neither student nor sage should miss, myriad images and fragments gas-lighting Jean Paul’s masked ball, fleet fingers, throated chords and proud octaves to the fore. The calculated ppp fade-out at the end is precisely consigned, comparably the old nightwatchman snuffing out his candles. ‘The noise of the carnival night dies away,’ the score says. ‘The church clock strikes six’. Norma’s chime is the boxed-in sound of a country bell-tower, wood deadening the harmonics, the world at sleep. Exquisite.

Her “body and soul” thoughts about Brahms (Jessica Duchen’s accompanying interview) penetrate. “Uncontained emotions … a wildness of spirit that’s almost terrifying … searching … lost in a world which is beyond understanding … a glimpse of Utopia, a kind of Germanic, almost Wagnerian triumphalism … chaos and hopelessness … why? … only in dreams can you be consoled … spirits hovering uncertain as to whether they want to reveal themselves … turbulence and insanity.” A Chopin group closes the album (October 26, 1992). With focal dystonia – “to hell and back” – drawing the curtain across Norma’s career as a concert artist, aged just fifty-two, this was the last broadcast she undertook for the BBC. She claims she can’t “with all my heart and soul really find Chopin, whereas I feel that I can find all the darkness of Brahms … [Chopin] was not naturally ‘me’. I’m a fantasy person. I go absolutely where my spirit takes me, whereas Chopin is much more about control.” If this suggests she’s out of tune with his aesthetic, be prepared to be surprised. The early C-major Mazurka Opus 68/1 springs at us with all “the energy, the life force” (her words) of a mountain wolf. The C-sharp minor Nocturne from Opus 27 is magnificent. The farewell Berceuse comes cloaked in long sorrow, an aria without end. Its ‘divisions’ flower with a crystalline quality, each blemish-free blossom edged in moon-shine and hoar frost. It’s cushioned points d’orgue spread balm. Reluctant to meet silence, the final mezzo chord softens and lingers. Around 10.20 p.m. it would have first aired. A cold, cloudy night. Swansong of an era.

Norma Fisher’s vibrancy and watchful discernment, her gift as a teacher instilling knowledge and nurturing individuality (through the London Master Classes she established in 1988, attracting an illustrious galaxy of visiting tutors, and at the Royal College of Music), her still infallible command at the keyboard – a fearless spur of the moment ability to illustrate facets however intricate (she was always a good sight-reader) – remain undiminished. Youthfully fresh, perennially energised. “Why not? I’m loving this moment in time and so grateful for the enthusiasm and interest!! [Even if it’s] brought to the fore many long buried feelings and sadness!!”.

“The greatest talent I taught,” Kabos believed, “that I could never teach anything.”

Many Happy Returns to Norma Fisher, 82 today. Plays Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No.1 and André Tchaikowsky’s Piano Concerto (completed in 1971).