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Leon Fleisher: Half Pianism, Half Legacy

Leon FleisherThe centerpiece of the Shriver Hall piano celebration was the Saturday evening concert of Leon Fleisher, the last of the first great generation of American pianists to still (more specifically: again) possess the skill and artistic integrity to offer an intriguing piano recital. When he divulged that he would do something for the very first time in his more than half-a-century-long stage career, ears perked. That ‘first’ turned out to be more cute than dramatic: he did not want to break with the venerable encore tradition – but since anything after the transcendental Schubert B-flat sonata, D960, would only trivialize the experience, he would – “I am not trying to be presumptuous,” he coyly wedged into that announcement – play the encore first. The enthusiastic crowd was all for that – and Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze started to emit from the Steinway grand.

Leon Fleisher’s story has been much reported on; the last ivory-Mohican (with William Kapell, Byron Janis, Van Cliburn, and northern cousin Glenn Gould either dead or no longer performing in any meaningful way) and his return to active duty are gladly pressed to the bosom of musical America. That he is a hero in Baltimore is out of question, and he can count on the support of the many, many students his great, ongoing teaching career has spawned. Thus playing a home game, his program proper started with the Bach Capriccio in B-flat (the key the recital would end in; although that’s the only thing that Bach’s “On the Departure of His Most Beloved Brother” has in common with the Schubert sonata). Not rich in color but with double servings of feeling and musicality, this was a moving, logical, sensible affair. Stravinsky’s Serenade for Piano in A major (Stravinsky dedicated this 1925 composition to his wife) got a dreamy, soft rendering, making it even more noticeably a serenade. It may not be a great work, but it can delight as it did here or as it does on Alex Lubimov’s wonderful “Messe Noire” album (reviewed here).

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Bach, Scarlatti, Chopin, Debussy, Schubert, Two Hands, Leon Fleisher

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J. Brahms, Piano Concertos, Fleisher/Szell

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Korngold, Schmidt, Music for Strings & Piano-left Hand, L. Fleisher, Yo-Yo Ma, J. Laredo, M. Tree, J. Smirnoff, J. Silverstein

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Grieg/Schumann, Piano Concertos, Fleischer/Szell
Bach again with “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” in the Dame Myra Hess transcription – and then, much more interestingly, the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 903, from 1720. It is a work that I find has more modest success being played on the piano. The beginning, surely, works better being plucked than hammered and became a gurgling mess on the piano... while towards the end it greatly benefited from the added dynamism. One thing is for certain: the work in its challenges makes up for many years of not using the right hand.

Schubert D960 loomed after the intermission. Although Fleisher's recent, best-selling recital disc Two Hands contained it and much praise was heaped unto it (the disc in general, but also the sonata), I thought that even there the performance of the challenging, grand Schubert sonata raised questions. So did this performance. Mostly: why does Mr. Fleisher still play it? Expressiveness in spades may just not be enough for this work; there are other works – including Schubert sonatas (as Alfred Brendel, who seems more in tune with his limitations and strengths, showed during his recent recital) - that might be more appropriate. Hesitantly (or contemplatively) Fleischer went about it, finally touching the opening notes. And it was transcendental from the first notes on – in a premeditated way. The playing sounded as if Leon Fleisher’s emotional impression of this work (it being transcendental) did not grow out of the music itself, discovering its greatness anew by playing it – but already saturated every note before the sonata could earn itself that status.

Also on Ionarts:

Shriver Hall Piano Celebration: Malcolm Bilson (April 9, 2006)

Shriver Hall Piano Celebration: Krystian Zimerman (April 8, 2006)

Marin Alsop / Leon Fleisher / BSO (January 13, 2006)
Doubts about the sustainability of that approach were raised one moment, then dispelled in another where greatness peeked. But ultimately even the more charged passages could not betray the meaning-sodden way with which Fleisher approached every note. Whether that be criticism or praise is up to the listener; certain is only that it is preferable to an empty note-pushing exercise (even when performed to technical perfection). While Fleisher is not Cortot (not that I entirely comprehend Cortot’s greatness, either), it isn’t difficult to recall the adage about the latter playing wrong notes better than most pianists played correct ones. The audience certainly felt that way about the humming-along, buzzing Fleisher on Saturday. Which was good, because they got their fair share of (excellent?) wrong notes in the Schubert. The score open but hardly ever even glanced at, the second movement had truly wonderful touches (if, again, ‘oh-so-meaningful’), the rolling out of the second theme gloriously unfolded the music’s broad smile. The third movement was uneven and saw some voices and notes get swallowed, and the fourth movement was fearlessly blistered away, accelerating to speeds that invited but usually just eschewed chaos.

For the audience before which he played, he could not have done wrong – and even if the finale had its painful moments, the crowd was shouting, rooting, applauding, whistling in excitement. No wonder he gave an encore: those ‘grazing sheep’ from two hours earlier.