To Steinway Hall in London last week to celebrate the release of the third volume of Norma Fisher At The BBC, a recording project initiated by Sonetto Classics to bring Norma Fisher’s remarkable pianism to a wider audience.
Born in London in 1940 to Russian-Polish parents, Norma Fisher’s talent was evident from a young age. Mentored by Ilona Kabos, Gina Bachauer and Annie Fischer, as a young woman, barely out of her teens, she won prizes at major piano competitions, including the Ferruccio Busoni International Piano Competition, and shared the Piano Prize (with Vladimir Ashkenazy) at the 1963 Harriet Cohen International Music Awards; that same year she made her Proms debut. She appeared at major concert venues around the world and with some of the “greats” of the era, amongst them Jacqueline du Pré. Hailed as one of the finest pianists the country had ever produced, she broadcast extensively for the BBC in the 1950s and 60s – at a time when this was the key to succeeding as a classical musician in the UK – yet these performances were never committed to disc. In the 1990s she noticed a tremor in her right hand, which was eventually diagnosed as focal dystonia, one of the cruellest conditions to befall a musician, and withdrew from the concert stage.
“I developed a focal dystonia,” she says, “a highly-debilitating neurological condition that affected my right hand, causing the muscles to seize up without warning. Public performances became unbearably nerve-wracking, knowing that at any moment my hand could just stop working. It never actually happened mid-way through a concert, but I didn’t want to inflict that on myself or an audience and it seemed only a matter of time before it could actually do so.”
She turned to teaching, and has established a reputation as one of the finest piano teachers in the world, nurturing young talents such as Pavel Kolesnikov and Anna Fedorova. She also regularly serves on international competition juries and is artistic director of London Master Classes – which is where I first met her.
Observing Norma teaching talented young students at a London Master Classes event was immensely inspiring and stimulating. Chatting to Norma during a break in the class, her enthusiasm and passion was evident and her eyes literally shone with the excitement of encouraging these talented young musicians. In an interview for this site, she stressed “the importance of sound, understanding the depths and possibilities the keyboard has to offer, and how vital is stylistic awareness“, and one of the chief aims of her teaching is the importance of an “individual sound world”, combined with delicacy and precision (one hears this in former students like Pavel Kolesnikov, where the influence of his teacher is clear in his own personal sound world).
These qualities are more than evident in the three volumes of Norma Fisher’s BBC recordings, now remastered and released on the Sonetto Classics label. An “instinctive pianist”, by her own admission, who eschewed extensive analysis in favour of vibrancy of sound and breadth of expression, these recordings reveal the full range of Norma Fisher’s talents. There is drama and passion, nuance and texture, glittering virtuosity and delicacy of touch, sweet timbres and subtle dynamics, and above all, a profound musical understanding in her interpretations. And due to the constraints of the original recordings and broadcasts (artist and producer were allowed only 90 minutes to make a 60 minute recording and there was almost no opportunity for editing in the way there is today), these recordings have a wonderful spontaneity and freshness – in effect, true “live” performances.
The event at Steinway Hall on 11 May was both a celebration of the launch of the third CD, but also a tribute to Norma Fisher’s remarkable life in music – as both a performer and an inspiring teacher – and many of the guests were personal friends and close colleagues (including Piers Lane, Peter Frankl, Tasmin Little, Dmitri Alexeev, Nelly Miricioiu and John Tomlinson) as well as some of her former students, including two more recent graduates, Siqian Li and Daniel Hyanwoo, who both performed at the event.
Above all, this event seemed to perfectly embody Norma Fisher’s belief that “If we can’t share, there is no point in life, and I think that will remain my philosophy until my dying day“. Norma has shared her music and her musical wisdom throughout her life, and this was an occasion where we all shared in the joy of music and music making.
Norma Fisher At The BBC is released in three volumes from Sonetto Classics