The Art of Doing Nothing

A few weeks ago I interviewed the distinguished pianist and teacher Hamish Milne for one of the magazines I write for (and incidentally if you haven’t heard his latest two-disc set for Hyperion of short piano works by Medtner you really should). One of the things he said was that when he is asked, as inevitably he sometimes is, who is his favourite pianist, he says that probably it would be Annie Fischer. 

Now Annie Fischer’s name is not familiar to most people. She was a Hungarian (1914-95) who was highly regarded by her peers and the piano cognoscenti but was never a huge star. Of all her recordings, Milne opted for her Schubert B flat Sonata (Abbey Road, 1960), now difficult to get hold of and only available on French EMI’s aptly titled set Les Introuvables de Annie Fischer. And why did Milne like it so much, preferring it even to Schnabel’s classic account on which he had been brought up? ‘It’s her truthfulness,’ he said. ‘No longer are you aware of the artist. She immerses herself so entirely in the music that it was as if she composed it.’ And how did she achieve this? ‘By the greatest art of all,’ said Milne. ‘That is the art of seeming to do nothing. But when you listen more closely you realise that’s because she is so deeply into the music.’

Well, despite having had Fischer’s Introuvables in my collection for years, I don’t think I could ever have played her D960 because had I done so I would certainly have remembered it. Not just remembered it, but revered it. Milne is right. It is very special indeed. Everything seems so right and inevitable without any point making or idiosyncrasies (Serkin, Richter, Horowitz), self indulgence (Kissin), over-intellectualised (too many to name). Do try and hear it of you can.

Later the same evening in which I found this new friend, we watched a French film on a rented DVD:  The Girl from Paris (or Une hirondelle à fait le printemps – ‘One Swallow doesn’t make a Spring’ to give its original title). Neither of us can remember choosing this 2001 film – it just arrived – but the plot sounded interesting in a gently Chekhovian way: young Parisian girl forsakes successful city life for the harsh challenges of owning / running a farm in the depths of rural France (it looked like the Vercors). Here was another example of Less Is More: the two main characters – the girl (Mathilde Segnier) and the farmer whose farm she bought (Michel Serrault) – were played with that same truthfulness that Annie Fischer brought to Schubert: minimal, economical, conveying powerful emotions with a subtlety and unshowy finesse that is a hallmark of modern French cinema. You are hardly aware of  ‘a performance’. It’s simply real life that happens to be filmed. Talking of which, the real life scenes with the pig and, later on, the cows were as unexpected as they were horrifying.  Cert. 15 for the real and messy execution of an animal; Cert. 18 for simulated extreme violence between human beings. Discuss.

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