Sunday, July 28, 2013

Fleshing out our sound picture of Leon Fleisher

RAVEL: Sonatine
i. Modéré
ii. Mouvement de menuet
iii. Animé

Leon Fleisher, piano. Epic-Sony, recorded July 14-16, 1958

by Ken

In Friday night's "Leon Fleisher postscript" -- a "postscript," that is, to the previous week's post on "Schubert's mighty Wanderer Fantasy," in which Fleisher had been featured -- we heard a bit of perhaps unexpected repertory from Fleisher, Debussy's "Clair de lune," from a 1958 Debussy-Ravel LP. I suggested we might hear the complete Suite bergamasque, from which "Clair de lune" derives, but I thought instead we'd hear Ravel's Sonatine.


In April 2012 I wrote about a pleasant evening at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center at which Fleisher had shared the bill with a very different sort of pianist but a longtime colleague, Gilbert Kalish, who had served with him as faculty chairman during Fleisher's long stint as artistic director of one of the country's prestigious music-education programs, the summer Tanglewood Music Center.

At the time I wrote:
as I expect most Sunday Classics readers know, he suffered a hiatus of some 40 years in his two-handed piano-playing career when, having established himself at a remarkably young age as one of his time's preeminent pianists, he lost the use of his right hand. That didn't end his career, though. He took to what he could still do: play the surprisingly substantial left-hand piano repertory, conduct, and teach -- including a 13- year stint as artistic director of one of the country's most important music-education institutions, the summer Tanglewood Music Center.
By the time of that concert Fleisher had regained substantial use of his right hand, and he and Kalish played Schubert's haunting four-handed F minor Fantasy, D. 940, but Fleisher also gave us a sampling of the repertory he had been forced to acquire during his decades as a one-handed pianist. One of the things he played, with Chamber Music Society colleagues, was Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Op. 23 Suite for left-hand piano, two violins, and cello. Here's the "Lied" ("Song") from a recording of the piece he made in 1991.

KORNGOLD: Suite for Two Violins, Cello, and Piano Left Hand, Op. 23: iii. Lied. Schlicht und innig. Nicht zu langsam

Leon Fleisher, piano; Joseph Silverstein and Jaime Laredo, violins; Michael Tree, cello. Sony, recorded in Williamstown (Mass.), Aug. 26-27, 1991

As I mentioned Friday, this week I received my copy of Sony's new Complete Album Collection gathering all of Fleisher's recordings, in their original album format, for Sony and its predecessor labels, Columbia Masterworks and Epic, and I was startled to realize that the 1963 Schubert LP comprising the Wanderer Fantasy and the A major Sonata, D. 664, was Fleisher's last as a normal two-handed pianist. Recalling that his 1954-55 debut recording for Columbia had also been all-Schubert, and I offered the group of little Ländler that filled out the grand B-flat major Sonata, D. 960.


Fleisher's second LP, his first on the Epic label, inaugurated what turned out to be a historic discographic partnership with his Epic label-mates George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, a coupling -- also unexpected Fleisher repertory -- of the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Franck's Symphonic Variations. I thought we'd listen to the same chunks we heard a number of other pianists play in an April 2010 preview peek at the Rhapsody.

RACHMANINOFF: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43:
Introduction; Variation 1; Theme; Variations 2-6

Variation 18: Andante cantabile

Leon Fleisher, piano; Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell, cond. Epic-Sony, recorded Oct. 26, 1956

The Fleisher-Szell partnership would yield recordings -- of the five Beethoven concertos, the two of Brahms, a single Mozart concerto, and the Schumann and Grieg -- that didn't need resurrecting, since they've never gone away. The Beethoven and Brahms concertos in particular have remained staples of the classical catalog, and basic-libary items, it seems to me.

We've already heard a sampling, in the March 2010 Beethoven concertos post, where Fleisher was tapped for perhaps the plummiest movement-assignment among the 15 Beethoven piano concerto movements: the opening movement of the G major Concerto (No. 4).

BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Op. 58:
i. Allegro moderato

Leon Fleisher, piano; Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell, cond. Epic-CBS-Sony, recorded Jan. 10, 1959

As we're reminded in the Complete Album Collection, where the G major Concerto appears twice. It was originally recorded, not as the start of a Beethoven piano concerto cycle, but as a simple concerto coupling with Mozart's grand C major Concerto, K. 503 (No. 25), but producer Howard Scott was so thrilled with what they got on tape that he prevailed on his superiors to make it the first installment of a cycle. The rest is history.


. . . and I already have ideas for several items. But for today, I thought we would hear a sampling of Fleisher the resurrected two-handed pianist. As noted above, Fleisher recorded only one Mozart piano concerto in his first career. The final CD in the Sony collection offers three concertos, with Fleisher playing and conducting the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra in 2008: No. 12 in A, K. 414; No. 23 in A, K.  488; and the composer's own two-piano arrangement of the Three-Piano Concerto in F, K. 242 (with his wife, Katherine Jacobsen Fleisher).

We have a history here at Sunday Classics with K. 449, which was the subject of the June 2012 post "How a 'second-tier' Mozart piano concerto can command top-tier attention." I was dealing in that post with a performance that seemed to me elevated by the passion and intensity of the extremely interesting younger conductor Eduard Zilberkant, with a talented 22-year-old pianist, Shiran Wang, and wrote at the time:
When I described K. 414 as a "second-tier" Mozart piano concerto -- trying to make clear that this didn't mean that I think it's second-rate -- maybe the simplest way to explain is that there's nothing immediately or automatically grabbing about the musical materials. It's left to the performers to make those materials grab and hold the listener's attention.
You'll bet a chance to decide for yourself whether Fleisher's performance does this. But, as I also said back then:
Before we turn to the complete concerto, I just wanted to highlight a little Mozartean surprise that occurs in the concluding rondo, in the form of what I will call the "countertheme." I don't know if it will have the same effect it does on me, but it's the kind of thing that has a way of seizing control of my brain and not letting go. (Some readers may recall the October 2009 Sunday Classics post called "Surprise! With wizards like Bach and Mozart, you never know what you may hear next," in which the Mozart surprise was a wonderful little figuration that bursts out of nowhere in the cello in the final variation of the theme-and-variations slow movement of the A major String Quartet, K. 464, and then works its way up through all the instruments.)

Countertheme of the Rondo of Mozart's K. 414 Concerto

This is nuts, I know, but I've extracted the portions of the Rondo that are based on this countertheme, starting with its first statement, from Murray Perahia's recording, which we'll hear complete immediately afterward. In this clip we hear ripped-out chunks that representing the following bits of the 6:19 whole: (1) 0:12-0:31, (2) 0:58-2:15, (3) 2:39-2:46, (4) 3:36-4:13, (5) 4:19-4:51 (including the start of the cadenza at 4:40 -- or 0:20 of our clip).

English Chamber Orchestra, Murray Perahia, piano and cond. CBS/Sony, recorded June 16-18, 1979
All that said, let's listen to the 2008 Fleisher performance.

MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 12 in A, K. 414
i. Allegro
ii. Andante
iii. Rondo: Allegretto

Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, Leon Fleisher, piano and cond. Sony, recorded July 16-19, 2008

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