Classical Music Review: Fleisher at 80

By Caldwell Titcomb

The two greatest American pianists to emerge in the twentieth century are Leon Fleisher (b. 1928) and Murray Perahia (b. 1947). From 1958 to 1962 Fleisher recorded all five Beethoven piano concertos and the two by Brahms with the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell. These constitute the yardstick against which all other performances must be measured.

Leon Fleisher and his pianist wife Katherine Jacobson

As the 60s progressed, a cruel blow of fate befell him: his right hand became useless. For some forty years he was confined to playing the limited left-hand repertory, while concentrating on teaching and conducting. All manner of treatment failed until recent years, when his hand improved enough to resume two-hand playing. (Curiously, Perahia too suffered a right-hand ailment in 1990 and had to surrender concertizing for four years, and briefly since. Luckily he returned to top form again, and his Grammy-winning 2002 recording of the complete Chopin etudes will never be surpassed.)

Last March, Fleisher, who had so transcendentally recorded the Beethoven Fifth Concerto (“Emperor”) in 1961, came to town to perform this work with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Depressingly, it was a poor rendition that did not begin to match what he used to achieve.

So it was with some apprehension that I attended the first concert in this season’s Celebrity Series, billed as “Leon Fleisher’s 80th Birthday Celebration.” The participants, spanning three generations, were Fleisher himself (his actual birthday was July 23) and three of his former piano students: Yefim Bronfman (b. 1958), Katherine Jacobson (who received a Bachelor of Music degree from St. Olaf’s College in 1970, and is now Fleisher’s wife), and young Jonathan Biss (b. 1980). I am happy to report that, though a bit uneven, the concert contained a lot of fine music-making.

Fleisher by himself kicked off the evening with “Sheep May Safely Graze” from Bach’s 1713 secular “Hunting Cantata” (BWV 208). This aria was composed for soprano, two recorders and continuo. Fleisher used the transcription by the celebrated Bach pianist Egon Petri (1881-1962) – who placed the melody in the middle of the texture – and gave it a lovely, serene reading. (The usually authoritative Steven Ledbetter, in his program note, slipped by identifying “the Sun King” as Louis XIII instead of Louis XIV.)

Yefim Bronfman in action

Bronfman played Schumann’s Op. 18 “Arabeske” (1839) with lots of rubato, which was quite appropriate for this moody work. Fleisher (handling the bass) and Biss (the treble) joined for Schubert’s late (1828) piano duet, the quadripartite “Fantasie in F Minor” (D. 940) – which a friend and I often played in our youth. This supreme work is equalled only by Schubert’s 1824 “Grand Duo” (D.812). It was good to hear the “Fantasie” get such a strong performance.

The first half of the concert ended with Fleisher (still sitting on the left) and Bronfman playing three of Dvorak’s sixteen “Slavonic Dances” (the two sets, Opp. 46 and 72, date from 1878 and 1886). These were, on Brahms’ recommendation, originally written for piano duet, though they proved so popular that Dvorak also orchestrated them. These pieces came across admirably, climaxing with the wild No. 8 from Op. 46, which keeps oscillating between G minor and G major.

After intermission Jacobson performed Mozart’s 1787 “Rondo in A Minor” (K. 511). We tend to think of rondos as light, lively pieces. But this one, lasting a full thirteen minutes, is slow and restrained, with a good deal of chromaticism. Jacobson had no trouble with the notes, but her playing could have stood more variety.

Jonathan Biss at the keyboard

Biss, instead of settling on a warhorse, chose a rarely heard Beethoven work, the Piano Sonata No. 27 in E Minor, Op. 90 (1814). The piece has only two movements, and Biss brought lovely tone to the kaleidoscopic first movement and the leisurely, songful second.

To end the program, Jacobson took the treble part for a rendition with her husband of Ravel’s wonderful “La Valse” (1920), a tribute to Johann Strauss. Called by Ravel a “choreographic poem,” it was written for a huge orchestra. The next year the composer arranged it for two pianos. Truth to tell, for those who know the orchestral version, a piano transcription – whether for two pianos or piano duet – is woefully inadequate. The Fleishers valiantly tried to negotiate the mess of notes – and keyboard-wide glissandi – while keeping out of each other’s way. Despite the big frenzied conclusion, this offering left much to be desired.

Still, one was heartened by Fleisher’s comeback, and harbored the hope that he will be able to recapture most of his former greatness.

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