Review: Pianist Leon Fleisher at 90

Leon Fleisher performed a luminous recital in Werner Hall at CCM on Saturday night.

Perhaps playing the piano is good for longevity. Amazingly, there are still two classical pianists who are concertizing into their 90s.

Earlier this year, Menahem Pressler, 94, the founding anchor of the Beaux Arts Trio, performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488, with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He made his debut with that orchestra under Eugene Ormandy in 1947. And, he’s still teaching at the Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University.

Over the weekend, Leon Fleisher, who is celebrating his 90th birthday, performed a recital as part of the Art of the Piano festival at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. (The festival’s founder, Awadagin Pratt, studied with Fleisher at Peabody.) As a teacher, Fleisher is a direct descendant of Beethoven, passed down through Carl Czerny, Theodor Leschetizky and Artur Schnabel.

Fleisher is known for making a stunning career performing repertoire for the left hand after suffering from a neurological condition in his right hand known as focal dystonia. After treatments in recent years, he has returned to playing a limited amount of repertoire with both hands in concert.

He opened with Bach’s “Sheep may safely graze” from Cantata BWV 208. It was a glowing introduction to his luminous touch and thoughtful phrasing.

“I think Debussy is a far under-rated composer. He introduced a whole new sonic world,” Fleisher said, as he launched into a sumptuous rendition of “La Puerto del Vino” from Preludes, Book II. The color and sweep of Debussy’s oft-played “Clair de Lune” is something I’ll never forget. He barely moved, and at times, his playing was almost reverent.

The pianist’s good friend Leon Kirchner, who died in 2009, wrote for him, “L.H. for Leon Fleisher,” inspired by an Emily Dickinson poem, “Wild nights — Wild nights!”

The work scored for left hand opened with ascending, leaping flourishes spanning the keyboard. It was well-crafted, alternating disjunct, chromatic themes against more lyrical motives. The pianist summoned a powerful sound, communicating with a radiant touch in the introspective passages.

Fleisher’s solo portion concluded with Brahms’ arrangement for the left hand of Bach’s Chaconne from Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor. The pianist mentioned to the audience that Brahms had made the arrangement for Clara Schumann, who had suffered an injury to her right hand. His touch was firm and full-bodied as he brought unique character to each of the work’s variations.

Katherine Jacobson-Fleisher and Leon Fleisher

After intermission, the pianist Katherine Jacobson Fleisher joined her husband in a section of piano-four-hand literature.

With Fleisher manning the pedals and the bass register, Schubert’s Fantasy in F Minor was perfectly in sync. But what I loved most was the clarity of their playing. Every nuance of phrasing could be heard. They recovered well when, in the most impassioned peak of the work, the page-turner had a mishap.

Ravel’s “La Valse,” in a four-hand arrangement by Lucien Garban, was, of course, the evening’s showstopper.

Several other faculty artists at the festival are giving recitals. On June 9, Makia Matsumura performs improvised piano accompaniment to two silent movies, including Charlie Chaplin’s “The Immigrant,” 8 p.m. in Werner Recital Hall.

The final weekend of the festival — which runs through June 16 — includes recitals by Vladimir Feltsman (June 14); Simone Dinnerstein (June 15) and Olga Kern (June 16).

In addition, there is an exceptional class of young artists, who are performing in master classes and in concert.

Visit artofthepiano.org for tickets and information about concert times and master classes.

 

 

 

 

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