Wonderful occasion for the launch of Norma Fisher’s 3rd CD from her historic BBC recordings ………it was also her birthday so truly a double celebration.Being described as her oldest friend was a surprise and delight as we remembered our piano daddy Sidney Harrison where in his home in Hartington Road our passion for music was born.
On Wings of Song indeed -fifty years have passed and still flying high.
Let’s not forget your students who ravished us with an astonishing La Valse from Li Siqian https://christopheraxworthymusiccommentary.wordpress.com/2021/07/13/li-siqian-streams-of-ravishing-gold-at-st-marys/
and an improvised happy birthday from Daniel Hyunwoo in party mood after his exquisite Debussy Preludes . https://christopheraxworthymusiccommentary.wordpress.com/2022/04/18/daniel-hyunwoo-at-st-marys-a-wondrous-voyage-of-discovery-with-mastery-and-authority/
Nice to see two jury members Dmitri Alexeev and Piers Lane fresh from Ferrol International Piano Competition where another of your prodigies Pedro Lopez Salas ravished and seduced with the great artistry that you have nurtured in him. https://christopheraxworthymusiccommentary.wordpress.com/2022/03/18/pedro-lopez-salas-at-st-jamess-seduced-by-the-weight-and-style-of-a-great-artist/
Steinways our wonderfully generous hosts are being more than repaid for their passion and true love of music with a sold out on the door whilst they await the piano makers to replenish their wonderful new showroom.
Last but not least the extraordinary Rainer Hersch who when I told you of his wonderful Victor Borge show in a little theatre in the West End you immediately exclaimed :’But he is one of mine’!
Mother to all the great artists that you have nurtured and promoted over your many years of enforced retirement from the concert stage.It is born of the same passion deep in us from our own childhood lessons from Sidney Harrison.
Of course the Happy Birthday chorus was led by the incredibly simpatico Sir John Tomlinson and the wonderful Nelly Miricioiu who tells me her final concert in a long and illustrious career will be at the Wigmore Hall on the 28th June for her 70th Birthday celebration.
Nice to see the guardian of great talent Dr Hugh Mather celebrating his first award from the critic’s circle for the same passion and dedication turned into practical help in the Mecca that he has created at St Mary’s ………he certainly gets our vote for the House of Lords!
Selfless dedication and passion combined with warmth,integrity and honesty.All words that have almost disappeared from our daily lives you make them relive for us all.
Norma Fisher on her early success as a concert pianist, and how a rare neurological condition changed everything
Tuesday, June 7, 2022
Piano prodigy turned influential teacher Norma Fisher’s performing prowess is once more being recognised thanks to the series of historic BBC recordings
‘Is this really the same Norma Fisher as the famous teacher?’ asked David Fanning (my husband) when I told him that I was about to review a disc of her historic recordings.
For many years she has been known as the great mentor behind a generation of up-and-coming pianists. Now it turns out there was a great pianist behind the mentor.
Before Tomoyuki Sawado, the CEO of Sonetto Classics, approached her, Fisher herself had apparently all but forgotten about that ‘other life’.
One of her students, Chiyan Wong, brought him to a student concert at Fisher’s residence. ‘I adore your playing. I would love to record you,’ Sawado told her.
Astonished, Fisher replied: ‘Oh my God, I don’t play any more. I only teach.’
He insisted that he was ready to be as patient as needed and if necessary to record only one movement a year.
A sleepless night followed for Fisher; and when she consulted family members, her son suggested that her historic BBC recordings be resurrected.
Thus began the ‘Norma Fisher at the BBC’ series, whose first two volumes appeared to unanimous acclaim; the third has just been released.
Norma Fisher at the BBC, Vol 3
Fisher’s 80th birthday having been eclipsed by lockdown, it’s high time to celebrate her and her years of music- and musician-making.
I ask her whether there is any difference in her mind between Fisher the performer and Fisher the teacher.
‘I am one and the same,’ she says. ‘When I am teaching, it is as if I am working with myself. Every suggestion is exactly what I’d do myself.’
She holds up her hands and adds, ‘Of course, I am five foot eight and have huge hands. In that respect I always have to consider that my students may not have that facility, so I have to become the teacher and rethink the whole thing as they would; I have to become them.’
As a pianist with small hands and regularly belittled for that by my teachers in Kyiv, I point out how fortunate her pupils are.
She thinks back to her own teacher, the formidable Ilona Kabos: ‘She was like a sparrow. When I first started studying with her, she would sit at the piano and look up at me towering above her, and say: “Darling, you’re five times my size, but I make five times your sound.”’
‘I always give everything away; I want to share everything. My whole life is about sharing’
Kabos features regularly in our conversation, as does Fisher’s musical ‘mother’, the Greek pianist Gina Bachauer. ‘Both Ilona and Gina were incredibly generous.’
This is a quality she herself emanates: ‘I always give everything away; I want to share everything. My whole life is about sharing.’
Norma Fisher was born in London in 1940 to a Polish-Russian family who had escaped to the UK from the pogroms.
Her love of music came from her mother, and it was she who supported her musical education.
‘My father was musically illiterate. And I actually think he grew to resent the fact that once I started playing and she realised there was a talent, my mother gave her soul to me; he was sidelined, and I think he suffered a lot.’
Even as a child, Fisher would enjoy others’ success and talent, somewhat to her mother’s chagrin.
‘My gift for piano meant the world to her and nobody compared to me … It was strange to me, because I loved complimenting people and it excited me to see others doing well. But my mother would shut me up, telling me, “Don’t you dare tell me about anyone else who plays the piano!”’
Having exhausted the local teachers, the 11-year-old Fisher went to Sidney Harrison at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
When Harrison compared her to Bachauer, Fisher encouraged her mother to take her to hear the pianist in London and to meet her afterwards.
Norma Fisher, her love of music came from her mother
This was an encounter that would shape the rest of Fisher’s musical formative years, most importantly because it led to the arrangement for her to study with the equally legendary Kabos.
‘I had incredible facility but didn’t have an understanding of sound until I met Ilona.’ But it came at a cost. When she first went to Kabos, the Hungarian asked if she was ‘psychologically fit’ to study with her.
‘I was 14 and didn’t have a clue what she was referring to. I simply answered that I wasn’t afraid of working.’
Soon she discovered what she had let herself in for: ‘When I first went for lessons, there was silence outside. I pushed the door open and there was this huge guy sitting at the piano, weeping.’
All subsequent lessons would start with young Fisher walking in on a tearful previous pupil. Then came her turn.
‘I remember exactly where and when she first made me cry.’ It was at a lesson the night before the final round of a piano competition at Wigmore Hall, for which Fisher was playing Brahms’s F minor Sonata.
‘It came to the Scherzo, which I was not happy about anyway. When I finished playing it, I hung my head … She got up out of her chair, put her head near mine and almost spat in my face, “That was horrible, my darling.”’
‘Kabos gave me so much. She taught me how to think about music. I had a sort of animal instinct. I just knew what to do. But that “ knowing what to do” needed training’
Fisher remembers crying bitterly on the way home. The next day she won the competition.
Today she forgives Kabos, ‘because on the other hand she gave me so much. She taught me how to think about music and even to become aware that music was involved. I had a sort of animal instinct. I just knew what to do. But that “knowing what to do” needed training … It was about how to understand what the piano was doing for you and how you could converse with it. And that knocked me sideways for a good couple of years. I went into a terrible depression because I didn’t know how to put one note after the next. And then once I understood what she was getting at, we were able to work on style and to understand what was on the written page. Then it became an absolute joy. Her demands were terrifying. But it was also a constant joy of endless discovery.’
Along the way, Kabos facilitated the next significant encounter: ‘Annie Fischer was doing her debut in London with the Brahms B flat Concerto.’
Fisher was still a teenager but knew the piece well. ‘Ilona told me: “Annie needs your help, darling! You go and play second piano and if anything doesn’t feel right, you tell her.” Can you imagine that? And that is how I met Annie and totally fell in love with her.’
The journey with Kabos lasted 14 years. Kabos left for the States around the same time that Fisher was about to marry Barry Saipe.
‘Ilona would say: “Don’t worry, my darling. You try it [marriage] for six months.”’ Norma and Barry are still happily married.
‘He was a clarinettist and very talented. He would have continued if circumstances had been otherwise. But he had to look after his mother and two sisters … He has a musical understanding bar none. I always said I would never marry a musician, but in his case his critical ability is amazing. It’s been a good partnership, and a huge sacrifice on his part.
‘Those were heady days,’ recalls Fisher with a laugh. ‘Shura Cherkassky was a really good friend. He was such a character. Sérgio Varella-Cid had phenomenal talent but was completely crazy. He destroyed himself and his career, because he was unreliable.’
Norma Fisher has suffered pain, but in her early life she was ‘so lucky – everything fell into place’ (photo: Ronald Julian)
Fisher remembers seeing the young Portuguese pianist learning Chopin’s Fantasy during the interval of the recital for which the piece was programmed. (He would ultimately disappear without a trace in Brazil, widely assumed to have been shot by gangsters.)
‘There were so many friends. They were top young pianists in the world and we all studied with Ilona.’ Many of them (including Fisher, from 1961) also lived together, in a mansion in Finchley, north London, which was bought by Kabos’s close friend Charles Napper for those of her students who didn’t have an appropriate place to live and work.
‘Every room had a Steinway. We had a housemaid. And we played for each other.’
Napper appears in another of Fisher’s friendship stories. She met the Polish-born pianist and composer André Tchaikowsky after a concert at Wigmore Hall in 1962.
‘I ended the recital with Liszt’s “Mazeppa” and then played Schumann’s Toccata as an encore. After the concert, André came backstage to see me and he was literally shaking. He said to me: “I am still trembling; how could you play ‘Mazeppa’ and then immediately Schumann?” I will never forget that. And we became friends and remained friends until the day he died.’
During his final days the ailing composer sent Fisher a letter. By this stage (1982) she had reduced the number of her performances owing to family commitments.
‘It was the sweetest letter. In it he said how much he adored my playing and that we must find a way to get me back on to the stage.’
Following Tchaikowsky’s death, one of the first concerts Fisher gave included the first public performance of his Inventions (composed early 1960s), a series of musical portraits of his friends.
‘It was as if he was there to tell me, “I told you I will get you back to the stage.”’ But there was more to that concert.
‘André had a very difficult character; he was separated from his mother as a child, and that left a mark on him. Throughout his life he had problems connecting to people.’
Napper was the dedicatee of one of the Inventions (No 5a), and following ‘a terrible fall-out’ with him, Tchaikowsky removed that piece from the collection and replaced it with another (No 5b), dedicated to the pianist Patrick Crommelynck.
‘But I was in the possession of that invention [5a] and fell in love with it; apart from that, I knew Charles Napper well.’ So Fisher included the Napper invention in her premiere.
‘That night, when I was playing it at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, I absolutely expected to be hit by a thunderbolt from André with fury for my going against his wishes.’ The complete set is included in the second volume of her BBC recordings.
It was around the age of 17 that Fisher auditioned for the BBC. She was accepted immediately and soon she was also performing on the Continent.
Although she no longer needed to compete, she nevertheless won joint second prize at the Busoni competition in 1961, and in 1963 she shared with Vladimir Ashkenazy the Harriet Cohen International Music Award piano prize.
Our talk turns to her other BBC repertoire. Having been moved to tears by her Scriabin, I ask her about her approach.
‘It was totally intuitive. I didn’t have to think. I could just look at a piece of music, put my hands on the piano and know what to do. In fact, Scriabin was asked of me. I had never played any Scriabin. It was his anniversary and they asked me if I could put a programme together.’
The repertoire closest to her heart, she admits, is that of the German Romantics – Brahms and Schumann in particular.
‘I put my hands on the piano for Brahms and Schumann, and it all comes naturally’
‘Do you know what our original name was? Führer! A year ago, a cousin discovered that the roots of the Fisher family go back to Germany and this awful name.’
However, Fisher believes that her genetic stock accounts for her special musical affinity: ‘I put my hands on the piano for Brahms and Schumann, and it all comes naturally.’
The BBC, however, promoted her as a Lisztian. The second volume of the BBC recordings includes some jaw-dropping Liszt performances.
I ask if she was ever put off by empty virtuosity. ‘Nothing is empty. Even when I think about Liszt.’
She continues: ‘I’m a little bit like that with people. You hear people saying bad things about somebody. I don’t think in my life I’ve been capable of doing that, because I can always see the good in everybody. It’s the same in music; even if it’s something that appears to be trite or unworthy, I always manage to find something that makes me appreciate it.’
I ask her what Fisher the teacher would think of Fisher the performer, specifically in the third volume of her BBC recordings, which includes music by both her favourite composers: Schumann’s Papillons and Brahms’s Op 116 Fantasies.
‘I have to say, I loved the Schumann. It actually makes me cry when I listen to it. The only thing is that I could have waited a little bit longer between some of them; some need a little more pause for thought.’
The juxtaposition of Papillons with Brahms only further highlights the fragility and delicacy of these miniatures: ‘The Brahms is so extreme,’ she says. ‘I played it a lot and I adored doing so.’
She pauses, and adds: ‘I love the recording, but parts of the capriccios for me are a little too headstrong. I would have said somehow that too much body is involved – because you can be as emotional and headstrong while also being physically focused.’
And then there is the Chopin selection, which I find unusually moving, dramatic and poignant, as if coming from a place of pain and struggle.
Fisher admits that Chopin was never a natural language for her. But the pieces on the disc also happen to be part of her last BBC recital, in 1992, when her focal dystonia had already manifested itself and was giving her pain.
‘When I listen to this recording I know exactly at which moments my hand was not feeling right and I was concerned. I can hear it.’
The gradual onset of the condition had a disturbing psychological and emotional impact.
‘I thought I was going mad. It’s like someone tells you to get up and walk, and your legs won’t move … I was running from doctor to doctor. I discussed it with all my pianist friends, and nobody had a clue. It was years into it when I discovered what it was. But it had got worse.’
Then in a back copy (1988) of the American magazine Piano Quarterly she came across an article by the neurologist Frank Wilson entitled ‘Teaching Hands, Treating Hands’.
‘For the first time someone was describing my condition.’ She met up with the author, who had also worked with Leon Fleisher, another sufferer.
Later it became apparent that she was also suffering from laryngeal dystonia.
‘This taught me a lot about dystonia. I can be talking in full flow, but suddenly the vocal cords go into spasm, and you can never know when that will happen. With the hands it was the same. It would take a stronger person than I am to go on stage because you’d never know when it was going to set in.’
It was this unpredictability that eventually convinced her to step away from the stage and from public performance.
Norma Fisher, ‘agony aunt for pianists’: it is now possible to hear her performing on record (photo: Tomoyuki Sawado)
She began this process during the 1990s, performing for the last time at the Barbican, London, in June 1999.
‘The final appearance with Brahms Two (of all works!) was because the conductor, David Josefowitz, was a good friend and begged me to play this concerto with him. I simply have memories of fear – not knowing if my hand would “behave” – utterly terrifying!’
Having already enjoyed teaching, she found it natural to transfer to it.
‘If young pianists came to my agent with problems, they would be sent my way. I was a sort of agony aunt for pianists.’
One of her former students, Murray McLachlan, asked her to offer occasional masterclasses at Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester.
The Royal Northern College of Music would soon approach her too (and she currently teaches at the Royal College of Music, London).
By this time she had been regularly visiting Kyiv to offer masterclasses, especially at the Horowitz summer school, ‘So when the opportunity opened at the RNCM, a steady stream of students started to arrive there from Kyiv and Moscow.’
Does she have a teaching method?
‘Well, everybody is different and this is what I love about the job.’
‘I pick up vibes scarily fast. I had healer friends who always accused me of being in the wrong profession. But I feel my teaching is also a case of healing’
Referring back to Kabos, she says: ‘I work similarly to her, but over the years I am adding things that have been helpful for me. On the question of style, I think of her all the time.’
And then there is Fisher’s spirituality, a feature that has brought us close ever since I first contacted her.
‘I pick up vibes scarily fast. I had healer friends who always accused me of being in the wrong profession. But I feel my teaching is also a case of healing.’
And then as if she has picked up on my own vibes, she adds: ‘For the first quarter of my life I was so lucky, I was spoon-fed. Everything fell into place … Every door was open, and I just sailed through. And then when that first door closed it was a shock of the first order. It took a long time [to heal] because I had been so spoilt.’
I admire her positive outlook but ask if she has ever cast herself as victim.
‘It hurt terribly at times, but I never said it’s unfair, because I believe that in life everything happens for a reason and I think we are here to learn from that happening. I went to hell and back with this problem, but I wouldn’t have had it otherwise. It taught me so much; I learnt so much from it. And I feel that actually I can do more with it by helping others than if I was just playing the piano and satisfying myself.’
Vol 3 of Fisher’s BBC recordings is available directly from Sonetto Classics
This interview originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of Gramophone magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today