BACH: Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring (arr. Myra Hess). Sheep May Safely Graze (arr. Egon Petri). SCARLATTI: Sonata in E, K. 380 (L. 23). CHOPIN: Mazurka in C# minor, Op. 50 No. 3. Nocturne in D flat, Op. 27 No. 2. DEBUSSY: Clair de Lune from Suite Bergamasque. SCHUBERT: Sonata in B flat, D. 960.
Leon Fleisher, pianist
VANGUARD ATM CD 1551 (F) (DDD) TT:74:08
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Leon Fleisher, one of the most respected musicians of our time, is known to discerning collectors for his superb 1958-1962 stereo recordings of all of the Beethoven and Brahms piano concertos with the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by George Szell, fortunately currently available. The earlier monophonic recordings of Franck's Symphonic Variations and Rachmaninoff's Paganini Rhapsody are also still in the catalog, as is Fleisher's magnificent recording of Mozart's Concerto No. 25—it's surprising that Sony has discontinued the Fleisher/Szell collaboration of the Grieg and Schumann concertos. The void is filled by a superb transfer on the private label Locked in the Vault (REVIEW) made from an open-reel tape with sonics superior to the discontinued Sony CD. Incidentally, Fleisher's magisterial recording of the Brahms F minor Piano Quintet, not otherwise available on CD, can be found in a superb transfer on another private label, coupled with five Mozart quartets with the Juilliard String Quartet; for information on this contact roppenheim@satx.rr.com. There are a few other Fleisher recordings currently in the catalog including music of Korngold and Schmidt for left hand piano and strings, song cycles of Schumann (with Phyllis Bryn-Julson and John Shirley-Quirk), a recording of Leon Kirchner's Piano Sonata, and a distinguished 1991 Sony CD of music for the left hand. You can also find a live performance from the "late '40s" of Mozart's Concerto No. 23 with Bruno Walter and the Los Angeles Philharmonic—and there exist live performances of both Brahms concertos from Boston Symphony concerts 1958-1962—perhaps these eventually will show up on a private label.

More than four decades ago, not long after making the earlier recordings mentioned above, Leon Fleisher lost control of his right hand from a condition now identified as dystonia. This was a major loss to the musical world. He began a distinguished teaching career at Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory, and in concerts focused on repertory for left hand. He also enjoyed a conducting career and appeared with many major orchestras in the United States. As soloist, Fleisher gave countless performances with numerous orchestras of left hand concertos of Ravel and Prokofiev and Britten's Diversions, recording all three in 1990-1991with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony. He previously had recorded the Britten and Ravel with the Baltimore Symphony under Sergiu Comissiona. Fleisher also made limited orchestral appearances playing Mozart's Concerto No. 12, and, more recently, the challenging Brahms D minor.

In 1982 he appeared as soloist with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sergiu Comissiona for the inaugural concert in the new Joseph Meyerhoff Concert Hall giving a splendid performance of Franck's Symphonic Variations, but, in spite of the success of this major event, Fleisher had not yet totally overcome his impairment, and the improvement was temporal. Over the years, Fleisher has been working with various cures for his problem, with varying results. However, recent treatment with botulinum toxin has been successful, allowing tension in his muscles to relax, his fingers to resume their original dexterity. As a result, the famed pianist has now resumed his "two-handed" career—welcome news indeed for the musical world.

This new Vanguard disk, Fleisher's first "two-handed" recording in four decades, is magnificent in every way. The beauty of the playing is astonishing, the emphasis on clarity extraordinary. The Chopin works are gems, particularly the exquisite performance of the Nocturne in D flat. The program ends with music particularly close to Fleisher, Schubert's Sonata D. 960, the first work he recorded about a half century ago for Columbia, music he had studied with his teacher, Artur Schnabel. Fleisher states he played "one enormous klinker" in that recording because of a misprint in the edition he used at the time—now corrected thanks to more recent Schubert musicology.

All recordings were made June 4-6, 2004 at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York. The sound is overly resonant but clear. Fleisher is active in the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation and its program entity, Musicians with Dystonia, which have created Freedom to Play, with a goal of teaching the public about dystonia and encouraging those afflicted to have it diagnosed and treated. A portion of proceeds from this new recording will be donated to the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation. For more information, visit this website: www.dystonia-foundation.org.

This new CD is a class act throughout. Let us hope there will be many more.

R.E.B. (August 2004)