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Two Hands
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

Jesu, joy of man’s desiring (arr. Hess) [3’43]. Sheep may safely graze (arr. Petri) [5’01].
Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-)

Sonata in E, K380/L23 [5’24]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)

Mazurka in C sharp minor, Op. 50 No. 3 [4’33]. Nocturne in D flat, Op. 27 No. 2 () [6’59].
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Suite Bergamasque – Clair de lune
Franz Peter SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Piano Sonata in B flat, D960 (1828)
Leon Fleisher (piano)
Rec. American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City. NY, 4-6 June 2004 DDD


In a sense this disc represents some kind of modern-day miracle. The story of Leon Fleisher is well-known in Classical circles – struck down by focal dystonia in 1964, thanks to modern medicine (Botox, of all things), Mr Fleisher, in June of this year, was able to put down this studio recital.

At first glance it looks on the bitty side, a few shards leading up to Schubert’s massive D960. Yet each ‘small’ offering is perfect within itself.

The two Bach arrangements bring to mind recent exposure to pedagogue Hubert Harry’s live recordings on the Royss Music label. These arrangements have real integrity as music within themselves, and Fleisher excels, shading the chorale melody in the Hess marvellously and evoking shepherds’ pipes nicely in the Petri. Scarlatti is a logical way to continue, and here Fleisher has chosen one of the most famous of all the Sonatas, beloved of many, including Horowitz and Uchida, who has used this E major Sonata as an encore. Fleisher’s ornaments are not exactly spot-on, yet interpretatively he proffers an alternative. Rather than a processional, this is as delicate as lace, shorn of ringing bass notes intended to imply a harpsichord’s ‘buzzing’ lower reaches.

The choice of Chopin’s Op. 50 No. 3 Mazurka is stimulating. This is a quirky piece, and Fleisher underlines the sadness. The Op. 27 No. 2 is certainly familiar ground. Fleisher plays it meltingly, with sonorous bass; compare and contrast Pollini’s sovereign HMV account from early in his career. It makes a successful contrast to the delicate Debussy that follows.

So to the magnum opus of the recital. If Fleisher is not quite as rapt as Uchida on Philips (a superb reading, and certainly the finest of the modern age), his view is equally valid. Fleisher’s tone is beautiful and there is a sense of (unhurried) forward movement from the very beginning. Subsequently he is open to the dramatic and unafraid of using a large sound. More important is the fusion of long-range vision (essential) with local contrasts, detail and colour. The first movement lasts 20’47 alone (he takes the exposition repeat), but there is plenty of incident. Hear the way he takes the left-hand trill around 5’20 gruffly impatient, or the throw-away arpeggiation/spread at 19’10; unpedalled, when most do.

The slow second movement vies with Uchida in terms of sheer mesmeric power. Here is Winterreise for solo piano – maybe the loneliness and bareness struck a chord in Fleisher’s soul. Fleisher shows Schubert’s bleaker side to us full-on, the true pianissimo of the close unforgettable.

There is real ‘delicatezza’ (as Schubert indicates) to the third movement, but what is interesting is the way the shifting accents of the Trio are ambiguously placed between play and angst. The music melts back into the Scherzo.

The finale does not disappoint. The way Fleisher has clearly thought about every note in the left-hand reflects an attention to detail that is the result of a lifetime’s contemplation.

Enthusiastically recommended. At full price, though, documentation is minimal. No timings and a minuscule essay, no more, Fleisher deserves better.

Colin Clarke


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