As has been explored in a previous post, Swiss pianist Edwin Fischer was a phenomenal musician who made the world-premiere recording of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, with a fresh and warm approach that some today might consider ‘inauthentic’. But he was an even more expansive musician than these landmark recordings reveal: he was also a conductor and had a much broader repertoire than his significant discography reveals (although he played Chopin, he didn’t record a note by that composer).
When visiting London in 2018, I had the good fortune to be introduced to Fischer’s pupil Gerald Kingsley by my friend and colleague Roger Smithson, a researcher and discographer of Edwin Fischer. Over the course of our three-hour meeting, I was regaled with fascinating tales of his time with Fischer and of his experience meeting and hearing other great musicians. The same year (1950) that Kingsley met the legendary pianist with whom he would later train, he also befriended the composer Nikolai Medtner and visited with him on several occasions.
While Kingsley would go on to work behind the scenes in the music industry (in publishing), he retained the vast knowledge about musical performance and interpretation that he gained from his studies and the remarkable encounters of his youth. Indeed, some of his insights are of such far-reaching significance that they should be of more than passing interest: rather, they should be considered truly essential information for any performer in the field of classical music.
Kingsley agreed to my suggestion of a recorded interview to share with a wider audience some of his learnings and observations, as well as some stories of the great musicians he was fortunate enough to meet and know. The result is an incredibly engaging 90-minute conversation supplemented by musical selections from some of the studio and concert recordings that he refers to, including the world premiere of the Strauss Four Last Songs which he attended in 1950 (they were advertised as ‘Four Orchestral Songs’ in the advertisement of the concert).
Among Kingsley’s sharings are some illuminating details about Fischer’s approach to interpreting Bach and Beethoven. The legendary pianist believed that one must not limit oneself to what the score says but rather that one’s whole being is required to bring the music to life. In a book on Beethoven Sonatas, Fischer wrote, “Do not let us forget… that it is impossible for the composer to put everything in the score… It’s all very well to examine the manuscript with a magnifying glass to try and see where the C of a crescendo begins, so as to form in it accordance with the text, but one must have the emotional capacity to shape that crescendo in the way that Beethoven intended.”
As for Bach, while Fischer’s style might be seen as unorthodox to text-focused musicians today, he may have been more truthful to the score than those who actually strictly adhere to what is on the printed page. Fischer pointed out that if you pull out a stop on a harpsichord, you get another octave of sound. The composer would not be surprised to hear more notes than were on the printed page through the use of this device, so why would one not aim to judiciously do the same thing on the piano?
Kingsley also gives us some fascinating perspectives about something we’ve discussed in these pages: how composers such as Beethoven, Brahms, and Rachmaninoff did not have a fixed, unevolving perception of their own works. Having been a friend of the composer Nikolai Medtner, Kingsley had the opportunity to discuss various musical matters with him. When the composer presented him with an autographed score of his Second Piano Concerto, he crossed out one of the cadenzas because he had decided that he didn’t like it any more. “So much for the Urtext,” quips Kingsley.
There is an incredible abundance of musical insight that can be found in this wide-ranging and vivacious conversation, in which Kingsley and I explore the artistry of a number of legendary pianists (and a few other musicians) and the nature of musical interpretation beyond the surface of the score.
An important listen for all who are interested in the art of piano, interpretation, and great music!