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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 39

 

Leon Fleisher at 80: An hômage - Leon's Core Repertoire Collection: A Multiple CD review

by Max Dudious

Consider the pianistic career of Leon Fleisher. From age nine through at least sixteen he was a student of the legendary Artur Schnabel. At sixteen Leon debuted with the N.Y. Philharmonic. He achieved recognition in his twenties and thirties as "a pianist for the ages;" but Fate dealt him a cruel blow in the form of a neurological illness (known as "focal dystonia") that had his right hand in partial paralysis for more than thirty years. In his seventies, he was the unexpected beneficiary of advances in medical science (botox injections in the affected joints), and regained the use of his right hand to return to his previous pianistic form. Well, nearly. As (I will often refer to Fleisher as "Leon" because in Baltimore, his home town and mine, he is known by only his first name, as Cher and Ali are known.) Leon asked Bob Edwards on an XM Radio interview: How many octogenarian piano virtuosi can play as quickly and cleanly as they could at twenty-five or thirty

How ought we to think of Leon Fleisher? Of his playing he has said, "It's a state of grace. It's wonderful. How else can I describe it? There is another level of awareness of the keys, the way I'm holding my hand, the sense of contact." Is his reunion with his piano-playing a mere medical miracle, like the surgical repair of a finger that has been severed in an auto accident? Or is it more mythical? Has Leon lost the love of his life, like Dante, and only after going through the Hell and Purgatory of being disabled and being cured, been reunited with Beatrice (his piano-playing) in Paradise. If so, Leon Fleisher's triumph against all odds is a triumph of the human spirit and should give us each a model to follow. Never give up hope!

I'll state my prejudices at this point, as there is no reason to create false suspense. I agree with those who think Leon had risen a notch higher than the other admittedly great pianists of his generation, like Alfred Brendel, Alicia de la Rocha, Minoru Nojima, or Glenn Gould—and that is some kind of company to keep. At a time when many concertizing solo pianists grew more cautious and their performances collectively became a stylistic "regression toward the mean," or offered performances more and more like each other's, incrementally closer and closer to the text, unimaginatively risk-free, Leon appeared as a breath of fresh air, fearlessly offering highly nuanced interpretations of the core repertoire with consummate skill.

Leon's Core Repertoire Collection:

Six CDs of his early playing for Epic records have been re-released by Sony and are available only through the Net In sum, I will informally call them Leon's Core Repertoire Collection, released on the occasion of Leon's recent 80th birthday, and available only from Arkiv on line at their website: www.ArkivMusic.com. They represent a snapshot of Leon's musicianship captured in his prime years of 1954-1963, or roughly between his mid 20s and mid 30s. Available singly, or as a complete set, they are as follows.

Sony 57307: Debussy, Suite Bergamasque; and Ravel, Sonatine, & Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, & Alborada del gracioso. (1958)

Sony 57336: Schubert, Sonata For Piano in B Flat Major (Op. Posth.); and Landler. (1954)

Sony 57337: Liszt, Sonata in B minor; Weber, Sonata No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 70,& Invitation To The Dance, Op. 65. (1959)

Sony 57338: Copland, Piano Sonata; Sessions, From My Diary; Kirchner, Piano Sonata; Rorem, Three Barcarolles. (1962)

Sony 57339: Mozart, Piano Sonata in C Major, K. 330; Piano Sonata in E-Flat Major, K. 282; & Rondo for Piano in D. Major, K.485. (1959)

Sony 57340: Brahms, Quintet for Piano and Strings in F Minor, Op 34; with The Juilliard String Quartet. (1963)

Mozart

Take as a comparative example the Piano Sonata in C Major, K. 330, that the young Mozart wrote soon after the unexpected death of his relatively young mother, with whom he was very close. Gould recorded this sonata twice (that I know of) for Columbia: in mono (ML 5274) probably before 1958, or when the stereo era began; and somewhat later in stereo as (Columbia M 31073). Gould's early mono version was what I think of as "generic" Mozart; risk-free, and played literally as written. The stereo version was taken at the tempo known as AFAHP plus, "as fast as humanly possible," and then some. Though the usually taciturn conductor George Szell seldom offered compliments, of Gould he once famously remarked, "That nut's a genius." In this instance, Gould's genius failed him, because his stereo version of the sonata K. 330 unfortunately sounds like a wind-up music box. Well, not exactly: more like a piece that sounds very metronomic, and set at a never deviating medium loudness, with very little rhythmic pianism (no rubato, accelerando, decelerando, syncopation). There's very little on display here except blinding speed. Counterpoint is all.

Alfred Brendel, by means of contrast, plays the same sonata with marked deliberation. Each note of every phrase seems to have been thought out with great purpose: to play each note to capture the many details that demonstrate Mozart's (and Brendel's) musicianship, without losing track of the big picture, or the architecture of Mozart's sonata, K. 330. Hear his reading on the recent recording Alfred Brendel Plays Mozart, Vanguard Classics, (ATM CD 1890). He plays this sonata more slowly than nearly all I've heard, and the slow movement more slowly, still. Some critics describe Brendel as an intellectual's pianist, while others describe him as "pedantic." When well done, slowing the pace of a piece does give us insight into the composer's intent, and a reading can become profound. Other times, it is merely slow. Brendel has a pretty good batting average. For those who value strict adherence to the text, this is the one. Scholarship is all.

In the prime of her career Alicia de Larrocha was known as a sublime interpreter of Mozart, with her feathery light touch and her innate musical sensibilities. So highly was she thought of, RCA Victor Red Seal had her record the Mozart sonatas in volumes. Her stereo, digital version of sonata K. 330 was recorded somewhere between August 1990 and August 1991, by RCA, and is now marketed by BMG (BMG2 60454) in Volume 3, with K. 309, K. 310 and K. 311. For those who like their Mozart with a light touch, if a little vanilla (standard tempi, standard dynamics), it is great, hard to beat, very elegant music for a formal dinner party. For those who like Mozart played with the extreme lightness of being in mind, this is the one. Lightness is all.

Leon Fleisher's mono, analog (Epic,1959) interpretation of the sonata K. 330 (re-released in 2008 as Sony 57339), is very much his own. He plays the outer movements briskly, a notch more slowly than Gould, yet noticeably more up-tempo than either Brendel or de Larrocha. Leon plays the middle (or slow) movement much more slowly (more dirge-like) than either of them, utilizing to fullest extent the dynamic range of the modern piano from ppp to fff. This would have been appropriate for the forte-piano recitals of Mozart's time, often played in "performance rooms" at the homes of the wealthy. In my humble opinion (IMHO), it is a perfect match for a high quality modern audio rig, typically auditioned in the modern home's living room or den.

Leon searches out the right pace and tone for the K. 330 sonata, and finds the purity and intimacy that allows him to capture the emotional "feel" of the slow movement of the piece: Mozart's loss. Without Leon's ability to place his fingers on each note "just so," striking neither too forcibly nor softly, and without Leon's supreme confidence to release the notes neither too gradually nor abruptly, the idea that Mozart was in deeply profound mourning upon the loss of his mother when he composed this sonata would go tinkling by, as with Gould's speed-reading, or be glossed over by de Larrocha's blithe lightness of touch, which makes all Mozart sonatas sound like "the same old same old," or be just tooo sloow to convey sadness. Leon knows his Mozart, and can reach down into the text and bring to us the appropriate emotional charge. He doesn't lock himself into too fast, too slow, too light, too heavy, or too scholarly: he keeps all of his options open to find the right phrasing, measure after measure, as the music develops. Flexibility is all.

If I need to confirm my take on this piece, to convince you, dear reader, Leon takes a very similar approach to Bach's Capriccio in B-flat Major, "On The Departure of a Brother," BWV 992. You need only to listen a few minutes (Leon Fleisher, "The Journey"; Vanguard ATM CD 1796: ©2006) to realize that Bach's Caprice BWV 992, and Mozart's sonata K.330 are both infused with loss and grief.

Ravel

Leon knows his Ravel, too. Ravel, who wrote some of the core repertoire piano music of the last century, is coming to command greater respect. "Ravel's piano writing, while ultimately of even greater far-reaching import as virtuoso pianism [than Rachmaninov's], is less personal, more universal in its demands," say the notes to the Nojima album. Minoru Nojima (known as the "pianist's pianist" during the ‘80s and ‘90s) is a fountain of flowing technique who also appreciates Ravel. In the stunning 1989 album, Nojima Plays Ravel, (Reference Recording: RR-35CD); Nojima plays "Alborada del gracioso" and takes 6:38 to do it. In his 1959 Epic album, Leon Fleisher, Pianist, (Sony, 57307), Fleisher also plays "Alborada del gracioso," but he takes 5:49 to play it. That's about 10% faster. Nojima plays the piece as if to give it greater grandeur, to give it more weight. Leon plays it as a sprightlier piece, to give it more wit. As the title translates to "the morning song of the jester," the faster tempo emphasizes the playfulness and teasingly tart tongue of the court jester. If Shakespeare is spot-on when he says, "Brevity is the soul of wit;" then, in this case, Leon's light touch is the right touch.

Again, Leon demonstrates something inborn, something that cannot be taught, even by the great Artur Schnabel. Taste. As anyone who's banged around on the family piano can tell you; if you hit the upper keys too hard they become steely and percussive, and begin to sound too much like a xylophone. If you don't hit them hard enough, they become too polite and get drowned out by the left hand's activities. This might be equally true for the middle and lower octaves as well. Each note must be struck with the force necessary for the sonority of the musical moment at hand. Leon seems deeply attuned to adjustments of tone. Sometimes he chooses a pearly tone, like that of a forte-piano, as in his reading of DeBussy's Clair de lune, on the same album as the Ravel. The word I'm striving for here is "pellucid," as in "admitting maximum passage of light without diffusion or distortion." Other times Leon wants a bowl-you-over, steely tone, as in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, "The Emperor," (1961). In some pieces, he may alternate between both.

Beethoven

My set of Leon's five Beethoven piano concerti were marketed as a 3 CD box by CBS Records (before they were merged into Sony), with the album no. M3K 42445. This set of Leon's, played with maestro Szell and The Cleveland Orchestra, has never been out of print, and has been considered among the most outstanding for nearly 50 years. It may be the best demonstration of Leon's bravura playing (as opposed to his witty, or delicate, or mournful playing), from his youth. You ought to consider owning these too.

Two Favorite Tricks

Leon seems to achieve pellucidity on command and just where it is most illuminating of the music. In illustrative passages he seems to hit every note, "just so." Another bit of technique that he pulls out of his hat when needed is; he holds certain notes just a little bit longer, perhaps, than the text requires, and he often drops his loudness to play more softly than is the convention. There is a related trick that good public speakers know. When your audience has been going with you in the development of an idea in a speech, say, you needn't raise your voice to make a point: rather, it is even more dramatic, and forces them to concentrate harder, if you drop the volume. Leon does this at unexpected moments, and it often serves to underline a section of the music. Together, dropping the volume, and holding the note, can bring listeners to the edge of their chairs, holding their breath in rapt concentration, awaiting some resolution. You have to know just when, just how, to strike the key—just so—and when to release it, also—just so. Leon knows.

Liszt

During her senior year in high school one Sunday in the fall of 1988, at the insistence of Cornu di Bassetto, I took my younger daughter, who was studying piano seriously as she approached college age, on a day trip to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to hear Nojima play a program of Ravel and Liszt. He played about an hour and a half of each of the composer's works, without breaking but two drops of sweat. I should add, he played so hard a piano tuner had to re-tune his instrument at intermission. He played grandly, and his immaculate technique spoke for itself. He wore no flamboyant hair-style, nor clothing. His manners were proper. He was just a man who happened to be among the great pianists of his generation, who was so little known that in Harrisburg (a state capital, with all its sophisticated lawyers and legislators, and their families), he drew a scant crowd of under one hundred. My daughter and I, and the di Bassetto family, were granted a nearly private performance in a college auditorium.

I came away thinking Nojima is Dyne-Oh-Might. I immediately got his CDs of Ravel and Liszt, and if you don't know his recordings, you ought to. Which is to say that I have nothing but the highest regard for Nojima's playing. His reading of Liszt's ground-breaking Sonata in B Minor is complex and powerful. It was astounding to hear in performance, and his recording knocks me out to this day. [Hear Nojima Plays Liszt, Reference Recordings: RR 25CD (1987).]

Leon takes the Nojima reading, and like Kant did to Hegel, stands it on its head. This is not to take anything away from Nojima, but to show how wide the range of interpretation of a given score can be. In the Liszt Sonata in B Minor as played by each, Leon plays the slow passages more slowly than Nojima, and the fast passages even faster. The result is that, once again, Leon's time comes in about 10% faster than Nojima's. Elapsed time: Leon, 27:42, and Nojima, 30:30. In this piece there are often passages where Liszt goes from very loud to less loud. Nojima uses these moments to dig into the treble with great zest and clarity. Leon sometimes, instead of finishing the same passages with similar flourishes, demurs, drops his volume, and extends the final notes. Instead of seeing Liszt as the Mad Monk who blazes away on his piano, Leon shows a side of Liszt that is a conflicted modern man, swaggering one minute full of braggadocio, and timid the next, exposing his own vulnerabilities. Now, maybe I'm exaggerating here to make a point, but the least I can say is that Liszt seems more the modern neurotic when Leon is playing, and more the wandering hero with Nojima. But they are each great. It depends on your taste. I do this exercise partly to show what Leon Fleisher brings to the table and why now, more than ever, we should re-consider him in this age of corporate conformity.

Brahms

Leon has had a nice relationship with Johannes Brahms, maybe nicer, even, than his interaction with Beethoven, because Brahms more often glides into lyricism than old Luggage Van. That is to say, Brahms provides more of those moments when Leon can shift into his lyrical gear, which is surprisingly sensitive and thoughtful, sometimes filled with gossamer moonlight and lullabies; while other times laden with tenderness at the loss of a loved one. Leon's readings of Brahms' Piano Concerti, #1 & #2, again with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra under maestro Szell, (my LPs Columbia Y31273; & Odyssey Y32222), capture Brahms' wide ranging (sometimes profound) pianistic skills, and Leon's intelligence and interpretive gifts. If you'd know Leon's range, do hear his Brahms (and Beethoven) concertos.

I must confess that I don't much care for the Brahms Piano Quintet in F Minor and I don't know why it was included in this collection which was supposed to be the core pieces of the repertoire. Maybe it was that I heard one critic describe Brahms as the greatest arpeggio composer, and that damning wisecrack just stuck in my memory and ruined the piece for me. Or maybe I see it as a student work; with enough help from his friends it was said to be "written by committee." Those Viennese critics could be bitchy. It seems to me Brahms was learning how to write a "symphonic" chamber piece, on his way to writing a symphony.

I like many of Brahms' other pieces; love some, really I do. The list is too long to print here. Oh, well; in for a penny, in for a pound. I like his first three symphs and love the 4th. I love his vn cnto and dble cnto, A German Requiem, his cl quintet, his cl trio and hn trio, org pieces, overtures, and more. I just can't get down with this piano quintet. I have an LP recording of it (DG 139 397) with Chistoph Eschenbach on piano, and the Amadeus-Quartet holding forth; and a BBC CD recording of it (MM281) with some top flight people, and neither of them capture my interest.

Leon's playing, with the Julliard Quartet, is interesting because he oscillates between the roles of soloist and accompanist, and he does quite well, playing his double role most deftly. For fans of this particular work, I'm sure it holds many surprises and magic moments. How does that old show tune go? "They're writing songs of love, but not for me." Not for me, either. Oh, well. Four out of five is really terrific. I'm sure Leon's contribution is as thoughtful and as insightful as on the other pieces in this collection. I might ask why this piece was included, but I think that the young Schnabel knew the old Brahms and that might have something to do with it.

I also must confess that I'm not all that familiar with all the works, nor have I any recordings with which to compare Leon's album of then-recent piano pieces by American composers Copland, Sessions, Kirchner, and Rorem. All I can say is that Leon plays them with respect, and his usual aplomb. So that's four out of six CDs in the Essential Leon Fleisher collection I've examined; and, solving for the lowest common denominator, is really two out of three; and (as they say), "Two out of three ain't bad." Uh oh. I forgot Schubert.

Schubert

Charles Burr, in his album notes, writes; "Grove quotes him [Schubert] as having said of his own playing on one occasion: ‘The keys under my hands sang like voices, which if true makes me very glad because I cannot abide that accursed thumping ...which delights neither my ears nor my judgment.'" I wouldn't be surprised if Leon saw in Schubert another composer who would have resisted an ideological approach to his music. Such flexibility might have appealed to Leon because where others might go "over-the-top" to whip their audiences to a frenzy, Leon would often "low-ball" certain effects to create something unprepossessingly complex.

In other words, Schubert's lovely and direct approach to the song-like music he wrote might have appealed to a similar strain in Fleisher, the man, as opposed to the musical scholar, performer, or teacher. The Sonata for Piano in B-Flat Major, (Op. Posth.) is a piece that leans in that direction. It is not as laden with tension and release as some of his last works, say, Schubert's Cello Quintet, or his Great C Major Symphony. Being concerned with harmonics as it is, the B-Flat Sonata allows for many beautiful melodies. It was in the radically harmonic way of presenting these melodies (jumping around the "wheel of chords") in unprecedented ways, that made this sonata a "breakthrough."

Brendel's (1988) reading of Schubert's B-Flat Sonata takes him 36:21 to play (Philips, CD 422 062-2); while Leon's (1954) reading takes him 34:02 (Sony, 57366). That's less than 10% difference. Leon's seems more fleet, while Brendel's sounds more contemplative and weighty, as we might have expected. Yet on closer reading of the elapsed times published with the album notes, Brendel plays the slow second movement nearly 10% faster. I mention this to demonstrate (once again) that Leon doesn't lock himself into always playing fast. Sometimes he will play a whole movement somewhat slower than the metronome count would suggest.

Brendel, always seems around the conventional times, and he can launch soft passages softly, and loud passages triple forte with the best. As Brendel's scholarship is credited with the unearthing of some previously thought lost Schubert sonata manuscripts, I would guess that Brendel's very exacting playing technique would stay close to the tempi indicated by those manuscripts. As a consequence he's recognized as an expert Schubertian, and many of Brendel's readings of Schubert are seen as more or less "definitive."

Yet, when I listen to Leon's playing of Schubert's B-Flat Sonata, I can't help but notice his obvious lightness of touch, and fleetness of fingering. It's unfortunate that elapsed time seems to be the only objective, measurable, evidence to support this claim. Another index might be the stylistic tropes that Leon uses again and again: such as dropping the volume in key passages and extending closing passages and notes. Another might be phrasing. Sometimes Leon will employ syncopation and/or rubato in places that other accomplished piano soloists don't. Leon doesn't employ these techniques capriciously: rather, he uses them to attribute a certain witty, playful quality to the music that he recognizes in the text and others often miss. Accounts of Mozart's playing, for example, state he kept time with his left hand and introduced rubato with his right. Leon would know that.

The Text

Which leads me to the place of "the text" in performance. Is it to be taken literally with all indications strictly adhered to? Or is it to be taken (as some recently turned-up performance manuals of seventeenth century Venetian violin music suggest) as a point of departure? These manuals have pushed the envelope to include very vigorous Vivaldi performances (with less regular rhythms, and greater dynamic shifts), that gave the staid The Four Seasons a do-over into an up-tempo show-stopper. (Hear Vivaldi's The Four Seasons: Sonatori De La Gioiosa Marca, Giuliano Carmignola, cond.; FIM, {FIMSACD 052}.) So, in the history of music there are at least a few documents that encourage using "The Text" as a point of departure. Music is a journey.

Pedigree

I think Leon Fleisher (who studied with Artur Schnabel, who studied with Theodore Leschetizky, who studied with Karl Czerny, who studied with Ludwig von Beethoven) has been "in on" the performance secrets of the great pianists in this line. For Leon, the text does seem something the "man of taste" can use as a point of departure. Here, I'd like to quote from an article about Leon's recent all-Mozart concert in The Baltimore Sun, written by their music critic, Tim Smith, in his review article, titled "Fleisher shows off musical gift on his 80th birthday."

Supporting Opinion

I was reminded during the performance of a master class given by Fleisher a few years ago for Peabody Conservatory students. He spent a long time analyzing why two particular notes came to occupy their places in a single phrase of a Schubert [B-Flat?] piece. He wanted to explore the meaning behind the distance between those two notes, the implication for the harmonic structure of the measure, the possible ways of articulating each of those notes. [My emphasis.]

It was at once an incredibly micro, yet wonderfully macro, moment – and typical of the care Fleisher affords all the black and white dots on a page of music. That same concern and sensitivity could be felt at every turn in his all-Mozart program.

Fleisher understands the difference between pretty, pleasant, on-the-surface Mozart and meaningful, eventful Mozart, and this performance was rich in the latter.

It's always marvelous to find a quote like that one, which sums up and lends weight to what I've been saying. I agree that Leon is "a pianist for the ages" whose recordings likely will be studied by future generations of piano students, as well as piano virtuosi, for the meaningful, below-the-surface events. While it makes me sad to think of what Leon might have done over the past thirty or more years, it makes me glad to have him back and performing again. He is something else, someone very special. With a pedigree that runs back to Beethoven, Leon is one of the great pianists of his time. A Baltimore treasure, and a national one, too.

Summing Up

If you're into the core repertoire for piano of the European classical music canon, either as a player or as a fan, an auditioner, you ought to have what I call Leon's Core Repertoire Collection (all six volumes) around the house. It's a winner. And if you think of it as one of the doors to all classical music, then it's cheap at $15 per disc. It's only available on the Internet, at www.ArkivMusic.com. You'll have to perform an Easter egg hunt to find it. But start with ArkivMusic. Go get ‘em! Do It Now! Trust me, if you love this music you won't be sorry. And if you're just getting into classical piano music, you can go through them one CD at a time. WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?? They're ear-openers.

This article also appears in www.audaud.com in a slightly different form. It is used with permission.

Ciao Bambini!

Max Dudious

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