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At Home with the Fleishers

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

The preliminary round of the 2012 William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival came to an end yesterday, with the announcement of the nine semifinalists who will continue in competition: three from China (Yue Chu, Jun Sun, and Diyi Tang), three from South Korea (Jin Uk Kim, Jeewon Lee, and Yekwon Sunwoo), plus Steven Lin (U.S.A. -- by report the best competitor on the second day), Masafumi Nakatani (Japan), and Misha Namirovsky (Israel). As it turns out, I actually heard the preliminary round performance of only three of the semifinalists, but of those I did hear, my feelings about what sort of playing wins competitions -- technically formidable but usually empty -- are not changed. The semifinal solo round continues this weekend (July 13 to 15, 3 pm to 6:30 pm, tickets now $35), with each competitor receiving an hour to perform more solo repertoire and part of a concerto with piano accompaniment.

available at Amazon
L. Fleisher and A. Midgette, My Nine Lives: A Memoir of Many Careers in Music

available at Amazon
Leon Fleisher Recital
(Takács, Bach/Brahms)
The other part of the competition is the festival, with a number of high-profile pianists, some on the competition jury, performing recitals in the evening. After jury chairman Santiago Rodriguez on Saturday night, it was time for a joint recital by local legend Leon Fleisher and his wife, Katherine Jacobson Fleisher, on Thursday night at the Clarice Smith Center. After regaining the use of his long-damaged right hand, Fleisher has returned to performing repertory for the left hand, music for which he was justly celebrated. As he showed in a performance with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this past May, the octogenarian Fleisher may not be at the top of his game anymore, but his interpretations, especially of his signature repertory, can still capture the imagination. As Fleisher, who quipped his way through introductions to several pieces, observed wryly, the first composer whose music he played, Jenő Takács, lived from 1902 to 2005, "which gives us all hope."

Fleisher's solo pieces were both for the left hand, and both had a serious, even somber cast to them. Takács composed his Toccata and Fugue, op. 56, in imitation of Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, and Fleisher gave a sober, carefully parsed performance of its chromatic vagaries. When Brahms made his arrangement of Bach's D minor Chaconne, part of a set of etudes for the left hand, all he did was lower the music an octave, into more comfortable Brahmsian territory, and keep most of Bach's score intact. Fleisher played much of it with the same forceful touch he had applied to the Takács -- such power still in that left hand -- until a ray of light burst forth in the parallel major section. The rest of the program consisted of four-hands pieces, with Jacobson Fleisher, as is customary, playing the primo part. While nothing to write home about, these duo performances had a homey intimacy about them that was quite pleasing, recalling previous eras when four-hands music was more common to hear. The husband-wife duo seemed most comfortable in Schubert's F minor fantasy, D. 940, one of the monuments of the four-hands repertoire that I would never refuse the chance to hear. Lucien Garban's four-hands transcription of Ravel's La Valse was perilous fun, with the best example of the balletic coordination so important in four-hands music -- primo has to lift her hands out of the way just so for secondo's full-keyboard glissando. Brahms's own four-hand version of the Liebeslieder Waltzes, op. 52, seemed the least comfortable. The duo switched roles for an encore, with Fleisher on primo.

The next festival recital will feature Gloria Cheng in a program of contemporary music (July 13, 8 pm).

Stephen Brookes, Pianist Gloria Cheng offers eclectic, engaging program at University of Maryland (Washington Post, July 16)

Punch Shaw, Leon and Katherine Fleisher impress at PianoTexas (Dallas Star-Telegram, June 29)


Gary said...

Having gone to all of the semi-final rounds, I must say, in my completely non-expert opinion, Steven Lin is by far my favorite:

I could be biased because I LOVE Bach, and he was the only one to play Bach in the semi-final round (which he did beautifully).

Charles T. Downey said...

You are not even close to the first person who has told me that. I think he is, by unofficial estimate, the leading contender in this year's competition. I finally heard him this afternoon in the semifinal chamber music round, and he was the best of those I heard in that part of the competition.

Gary said...

Many of them are very talented, but for me, he's really the only one who is exciting to watch. Watching him perform seems more like watching a concert than a competetition.