Leon Fleisher's musical intelligence is ever-present.

DSSLEO25. Photos of Leon Fleisher. The Credit for all Photos is Eli Turner.
DSSLEO25. Photos of Leon Fleisher. The Credit for all Photos is Eli Turner.
Posted: October 07, 2013

Though Leon Fleisher - The Complete Album Collection (Sony 88725459972) contains 23 CDs, it is far from comprehensive. But those who care about the truncated career of this great pianist are likely to find recordings they have long sought or never knew existed - and for only about $60.

Though his Brahms and Beethoven concertos never went out of print, the Columbia vaults left important items unissued for years, perhaps because they were in less-desirable mono sound, or because the industry assumed he would fade after losing use of his right arm in the 1960s to focal dystonia.

Unlike Gary Graffman, who was reasonably happy to shift to a part-time, left-handed career when he encountered similar challenges, Fleisher, now 85, continued searching for treatments, as well as for worthy, little-known repertoire for the left hand. He often recorded for independent labels, most recently a disc for Bridge made weeks ago at the Curtis Institute, where he was once on the faculty.

At times, he seemed almost as famous for raising awareness about focal dystonia as for music. In recent years, he has returned to two-handed playing, with varying levels of success. But there's nothing variable in this collection. Blazing musical intelligence is ever-present, even if you don't always agree with the decisions it produces. You might also wish a piano tuner had been closer at hand during the recording sessions.

It's odd to realize, given Fleisher's legendary status, that he often recorded for Columbia's subsidiary, Epic, whose lesser prestige sometimes translated into imperfect recording circumstances and sound quality not up to the standards of the period.

Yet many of the recordings, whether the Brahms Piano Quintet Op. 34 with the Juilliard String Quartet or his early outing with Schubert's Piano Sonata in B-flat, recall a distinctive postwar era of American music-making. The twin gods Arturo Toscanini and Artur Schnabel had ushered in a hyper-objectivist era in which the score was the law, sentimentality was a felony, and tempos were fast - all executed with evangelistic fervor.

Music wasn't interpreted so much as X-rayed - meaning that the disc of contemporary works by Aaron Copland, Leon Kirchner, and Roger Sessions has Fleisher forging through potentially knotty passages with no loss of clarity or comprehension. Surface color was just a side effect of the lean, clear sound Fleisher cultivated at that time - even in Debussy and Ravel. He could be downright ascetic. In a disc of Mozart sonatas, the fast movements feel like plants dying of thirst. Then, in slow movements, Fleisher plays with all his heart.

Though his Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 is one of the best, his two-hand years often show him at his finest when filtering big, effusive romantic works by Brahms, Schumann, and Rachmaninoff through the merciless clarity of his interpretive gaze.

The bigger the challenge, the more Fleisher seems to fire on cylinders you didn't know he had, in the problematic piano writing of the Schumann Piano Concerto, the grandeur of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2, or the crosscutting miniatures of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

So what happens during the latter in the famously emotive 18th variation, which has achieved classical greatest-hits status? The performance feels like an elegy etched in stone, so intense in its own way that you could weep. Though one strains to imagine Fleisher and severe conductor George Szell having a blast doing anything, that's the impression here.

Some of the odd surprises:  Brahms' Liebeslieder Waltzes Op. 52 with Fleisher playing piano duet with Rudolf Serkin and soloists including the late Philadelphia radio commentator Wayne Connor when he was a sweet-voiced young tenor. Also on hand: young Benita Valente, heard as well in her famous recording of Schubert's The Shepherd on the Rock.

Less-fierce later generations following in Fleisher's objectivist footsteps have often sounded impersonal. But his intelligence has always been in fashion, and in his 2009 Mozart concerto recordings, he adapts easily to a manner of interpretation influenced by the early-music movement. Later left-hand recordings also include discs easily overlooked in the CD boom years, such as the 1996 Erich Wolfgang Korngold Suite and the Franz Schmidt Quintet, both worthy works performed with luxury casting including Yo-Yo Ma.

Then as now, Fleisher attracted and gravitated toward the best.


dstearns@phillynews.com.

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