Some of the piano playing on this three-disc set is, frankly, terrible. Annie Fischer was a star in her native Hungary, but she disliked traveling almost as much as she disliked recording, and her international reputation is primarily based on a handful of recordings. But apparently Fischer could be an amazingly shoddy technician. Try, for example, her 1984 live performance of Schumann's Piano Concerto with the NDR Symphony Orchestra led by Woldemar Nelsson included as the third disc here. Did any major pianist ever miss more notes than Fischer? Double octaves, two-handed chords, arpeggios, arabesques, and more are beyond her more than a third of the time, making her performance more nerve-jangling than exciting. Though there are moments of lyrical loveliness in the work's more poetic moments, Fischer's Schumann concerto comes close to being unlistenable.
But to be fair, most of the playing here is fabulous. The reason for the stark difference is clear: the Schumann concerto recording dates from 1984 when Fischer was 80. But things are entirely different for the recordings on the first two discs, which come from video recordings taken from Hungarian television broadcasts from the '60s. Here, though Fischer was just a tad past her prime, her performances have incredible power and accuracy, as well as lyricism and poetry. True, Fischer does sometimes come down on wrong notes in some of the most difficult passages, but the works she tackles are among the peaks of the piano concerto repertoire. And for strength, spirit, and charisma, Fischer's performances are hard to beat. Try any of the three Beethoven concertos. Fleet fingered but massively muscular, Fischer's interpretations are intensely dramatic, incredibly powerful, and totally compelling. The Hungarian television's video quality is grainy, the sound hissy, and the camera direction merely functional. But for Fischer's international fans, these factors will not diminish their enthusiasm for her performances.