Classical CD Review: Pianist Leon Fleisher — A Box Set of Greatness

Leon Fleisher was part of an outburst of great North American pianists. Many were ill-fated, but, as this commanding box set proves, Fleisher stayed the course.

Leon Fleisher: The Complete Album Collection, Sony Classical (23 discs)

by Michael Ullman


In the decade that followed Leon Fleisher’s first recording for Columbia in 1954, of the Schubert B Flat Sonata, no pianist was more commanding, though one, Van Cliburn, was probably more famous. Fleisher is still performing (he celebrated his 85th birthday on July 23rd of this year), and that is a fascinating story whose twists and turns have given him more than a little notoriety.

Fleisher’s career is famously bifurcated. After a decade of recordings, including recording celebrated performances with conductor George Szell of the Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann and Grieg concertos, all part of this 23-CD deluxe collection (which includes the albums he made for Columbia/Epic/Sony from 1954 to 2009), Fleisher found in the mid-60s that his right hand had become paralyzed by a condition called focal dystonia, a condition that causes involuntary muscle contractions. (It is ‘focal” because it focused on a specific part of his body.) As a result, Fleisher started playing and recording the repertoire for the left hand, including the Ravel, Prokofiev, Britten and Korngold pieces. His return to two-handed performing in the 21st century is celebrated here with his 2009 disc of Mozart piano concertos, including a sublime K. 488.

That recording was made an astonishing 50 years after Fleisher’s first collaboration with Szell, a collaboration that brought out the best in both. Szell’s no-nonsense genius for illuminating compositional detail was matched by Fleisher’s intellectual brilliance, his disciplined shaping of the line, the rhythmic tension of his playing. In 1959 an acclaimed Columbia LP of Fleisher’s recording of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto and Mozart’s Concerto in C, K. 503 (with Szell) was admired for its astonishing length as well as its technical agility and emotional power. Critic B.H. Haggin argued that the Beethoven on the disc was a “superbly conceived and achieved performance.” Baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau called it a perfect record. In an interview with Opernwelt, Fischer-Dieskau elaborated on Fleisher’s talent: “From the first time I stood on a podium with him I had the feeling: this is a very great artist…. And I thought, this is a pianist who doesn’t play according to American norms, but rather has a quasi-European potential behind him….And later I learned that he had studied with Artur Schnabel, and this influence is very much in evidence.”

I am not sure what Fischer-Dieskau meant by American norms, except that stereotypical images of Americans depict them as brash and undisciplined. Fleisher was neither. Brilliant technically, his playing was about the coherence, rather than the flash, of any piece he played, difficult as those compositions might be, such as the Liszt sonata, recorded in 1959. On the first of these reissued recordings, the Schubert B flat sonata, each note is clearly delineated — firmly, even crisply, played. There are no romantic distensions of the line, and yet Fleisher’s touch is far from monochromatic. His phrasing is always shapely, whether dealing with the roses and raptures of Liszt or the disciplined exuberance and tender lyricism of Mozart. His teacher Artur Schnabel, a world famous exponent of Beethoven, famously said of Mozart that he was too easy for amateurs and too hard for professionals. Fleisher is undaunted. His set of Mozart sonatas is brisk, lively, and totally convincing. The sobriety of the slow movement of the Sonata in C, K. 330, is as memorable as is the snap of the pianist’s finale. This is virtuoso Mozart, but made by a virtuoso without affectation or condescension.

The story goes that Schnabel was tricked into hearing the then ten-year-old Fleisher. Schnabel had an understandable aversion to what writer Charles Dickens called ‘infant phenomenons.’ Somehow Fleisher had come to the attention of the venerated conductor Pierre Monteux (who called him “the pianistic find of the century”) and of the San Francisco Symphony’s musical director Alfred Hertz. According to Jed Distler’s notes to this collection, Mrs. Hertz invited Schnabel to dinner. After he ate, Schnabel was brought to a room where Fleisher sat at the piano. He heard the child and invited him to study with him at Lake Como. Fleisher continued to train with the pianist for ten years. In the meantime, he started to perform. When he was 14, Fleisher played Liszt’s A Major Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony. He signed with Columbia in 1954.

Leon Fleischer -- Photo: Getty Commons

Pianist Leon Fleisher — Photo: Getty Commons

It was a sign of Fleisher maturity that he did not study Schubert’s B flat sonata with his teacher Schnabel, despite the fact that the latter had made a famous recording of the piece. Fleisher went his own way. Schnabel’s cycle of Beethoven Sonatas is still considered definitive: it is striking that Fleisher never recorded a Beethoven sonata for Columbia. Perhaps it was deference, or perhaps he just didn’t get to the pieces before his hand became crippled. Until the onset of his muscular condition, Fleisher was technically more adept than his teacher. There is evidence of this virtually everywhere in the box set, particularly in his performances of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini as well as the Brahms concertos. Few recordings are as stunning as Fleisher’s take on Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel. Not many versions of Schubert’s Wanderer compare with Fleisher’s. His Debussy is full-bodied: even here he has no use for the gossamer touch of someone like Gieseking. He seemed to be revising as well as illuminating Debussy. The sound of the recordings in the box set varies, but only the Hindemith (The Four Temperaments) sounds harsh to my ears.

Fleisher’s repertoire was also much more expansive than was his teacher’s. Fleisher is interested in contemporary music: one disc found here contains pieces by Copland, Leon Kirchner, Roger Sessions, and Ned Rorem. Still, I think the heart of this admirable, even indispensable, collection is the classics: Fleisher’s Beethoven concertos, which many think are the finest versions available, the Brahms, Schubert and Mozart. Columbia issued Beethoven’s Fourth twice, once backed by Mozart’s K. 503 and once by Beethoven’s Second Concerto. We therefore have the Fourth twice. A bonus: after a performance of Brahms’ Liebesleider Walzer, a song cycle accompanied by 4 hands piano (in this case, the hands are those of Fleisher and Rudolf Serkin), we are given Schubert’s The Shepherd on the Rock, with Serkin and not Fleisher on piano. There is some chamber music here as well, including the Brahms Piano Quintet, Opus 34, performed with the Juilliard String Quartet.

The discs in the box set are designed to reproduce the original LPs, both musically and in their packaging. That means some of the CDs are pretty short (in the thirty minute range) while the notes on the back covers are so reduced in size that only the eagle-eyed (or those with a magnifying glass) will be able to make them out.

Fleisher was part of an outburst of potentially great North American pianists. Many were ill-fated. Byron Janis cut short his career because of arthritis; Gary Graffman lost the use of his right hand. After playing a shrinking catalogue of pieces, Van Cliburn retired because of nerves, it would seem, and Glenn Gould out of ornery weirdness. Fleisher stayed the course. Over the decades, classical fans have lamented that one or another of his fabled early recordings were unavailable. Here they are, all in one package. The playing is, as they say, for the ages.

Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.

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