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Seen and Heard International Festival
ASPEN FESTIVAL 2005 (IX): Recital by Leon Fleisher spices things up, Aspen, Colorado, 25 July, 2005 (HS)
Leon Fleisher ambled onto the stage at Harris Hall Wednesday night, looking dapper at 76 in his black shirt set off by a white dinner jacket. He walked slowly, almost cautiously, made courtly bows toward the overflow audience on the stage and acknowledged the enthusiastic applause of the 600 or so in the audience that had secured tickets for his piano recital.
A regular at the Aspen Music Festival, Fleisher has given concerts and master classes with orchestras here but it's been a while since he sat down at the piano for a full-scale recital. In 1965, at the peak of powers as an internationally acclaimed pianist, a neurological condition called dystonia robbed him of the use of the fingers on his right hand. That didn't stop him from making music. He voraciously absorbed and brilliantly performed piano music for left hand. He conducted. He taught. Only since 1995 has Fleisher regained use of both hands, thanks to a revolutionary treatment involving Botox.
Some of the music on the Aspen recital program is on his recent recital CD, "Two Hands," including the first piece. He opened with a mesmerizing account of J.S. Bach's cantabile favorite "Sheep May Safely Graze," in a lovely, simple arrangement by Egon Petri that Fleisher has played since childhood. What immediately strikes a listener is his sound. A piano, which produces a tone by striking strings with a felt-lined hammer, should not be able to sustain a legato as gorgeous as what Fleisher coaxes from the instrument. The next thing you realize is that this sound is not just a clever effect but it makes the music come to life and clarifies textures in way that seems utterly fresh and utterly right.
That's the magic of Fleisher the pianist. The music just oozes out of his pores. Or, more precisely, it travels down the arm, through the once-gnarled fingers, now supple, and transmits itself through the instrument in a powerful way.
Most of the first half was devoted to contemporary music, including two pieces for left hand written specifically for Fleisher. George Perle's 1998 Musical Offerings for Left Hand Alone and Leon Kirchner's 1995 For the Left Hand use dense, often dissonant harmonies but make use of Fleisher's ability to create a range of tones and textures. I was more taken with Roger Sessions' 1937 collection of piano portraits of musical friends, Pages From a Diary, no less dissonant but somehow more expressive, and not just because it was written for both hands.
But the climax of the first half was hearing Fleisher blaze through Brahms' magnificent left-hand-only arrangement of J.S. Bach's Chaconne in D minor. One of the towering masterpieces of the violin literature, it takes on a whole new life in the broader, deeper range of the piano's lower half. In its 13 minutes or so, the music piles up astonishing variations into a tremendous edifice, scaling one musical peak after another. Fleisher's take, grounded in the architecture of the piece, not its flash, was thrilling.
The second half was devoted to Schubert's Piano Sonata in B flat (also on the CD), more notable for its stunningly gorgeous Andante, which seemed to float serenely through the hall, and its fleet Scherzo: Allegro vivace con delicatezza, which was all of that but also found a rhythmical spiral that carried it off into unexpected heights.
The big corner movements found somewhat less magic. While his revived right hand can create the most astonishing delicacy and warmth, loud passages that require sheer power present greater challenges. Fatigue caused some faltering moments in the climax of the finale, but one could sense in an almost palpable way just what Fleisher was trying to communicate through the music. Strangely, that extra bit of struggle made the performance, and the music, all the more heroic.
Acknowledging the long, enthusiastic and well-deserved standing ovation, Fleisher begged off offering an encore. Partly, he said, it was because he could not think of anything to follow a monumental work like the Schubert sonata. He also quoted his mentor, Artur Schabel, who, Fleisher said, considered audiences' enthusiastic ovations "a receipt, not a bill" to be repaid with an encore. More likely, was exhausted, having poured all of his energy into a memorable evening's music.
Thursday's "Evening with..." featured violinist Robert McDuffie. An Aspen favorite, McDuffie has a flair for lyrical music, and the program in Benedict Music Tent sandwiched two underrated French classics by Ravel and Chausson around a more recent piece by Lowell Liebermann that paid homage to the Chausson, giving the evening an extra dimension.
McDuffie and pianist Anne Marie McDermott delivered a ravishing account of Ravel's 1927 Violin Sonata, savoring the filigree of the first movement's harmonies, the broad jazzy gestures in the second movement (subtitled "Blues") and the juiced-up perpetual-motion of the finale. They were joined by the Jasper Quartet for the other two pieces. Chausson's Concert for violin, piano and quartet is a full-scale concerto for reduced forces. The quartet could have put a little more oomph into their contribution, but McDuffie and McDermott etched a satisfying artistic arc through the music.
The Liebermann piece, written in 1984 in the composer's full-on Romantic style (i.e., very little dissonance), is a single-movement work for the same instrumentation as the Chausson. In fact, it is a frank homage to it. Good thing it came first. The Chausson clearly outclasses it.
The weekly Monday chamber music potpourri included a lovely Piano Quartet No. 2 by George Tsontakis, on the artist faculty at Aspen since 1976. Suffused with Debussy-ish harmonies, the two-movement piece has more a sense of repose than motion. The quartet -- violinist Naoko Tanaka, violist John Graham, cellist Alan Harris and pianist Antoinette Perry -- made it feel lush and satisfying.