The American pianist,
Leon Fleisher (b. 1928) was talented enough to become a pupil
of Artur Schnabel when aged only nine. In 1952 he became the first
American to win the Queen Elizabeth International Piano Competition
in Belgium. His early career was illustrious and promised even
more. Then in 1965 he suffered debilitating problems with his
right hand, later diagnosed, as Repetitive Strain Injury, and
it seemed his career was over. He devoted himself to teaching
and some conducting but it wasn’t until the early 1980s that he
began to play in public again, confining himself to the repertoire
for the left hand. The story has a happy ending, however, for
in 1995 he resumed playing standard two-hand repertoire, though
he has been a bit selective in his choice of repertoire, which
is quite understandable. His first two-handed recording for many
years, including Schubert’s Piano Sonata D960, was released not
long ago and was well received, not least by my colleague, Colin
Clarke (see review).
This present and
very welcome reissue takes us back to the days when his career
was at its peak and recalls his collaboration with George
Szell. Together they set down a complete Beethoven concerto
cycle in Cleveland of which these two recordings were a part.
Szell was certainly a robust interpreter of Beethoven though
in my experience of his Beethoven recordings “robust” is not
a word I’d use pejoratively. Here he and Fleisher combine
to very good effect.
a strong, purposeful account of the substantial introduction
to the third Concerto, presaging serious argument to come.
Fleisher’s first phrase is impressive though I’d have preferred
a little more hush in the answering second phrase. Thereafter
he and Szell unfold the movement in a forthright but far from
insensitive fashion. There’s plenty of spirit and strength
in this performance but one should admire also the fluency
of Fleisher’s playing. Also much to be admired is the sheer
amplitude and attack of the Cleveland Orchestra, clearly well
drilled by Szell. Fleisher’s superb technique is on display
in Beethoven’s cadenza, which is powerfully delivered. In
the notes we read that “…the purpose of the movement [is]
not that of displaying virtuosity, but of shaping musical
drama.” That’s just how Fleisher and Szell seem to view things.
appropriate sensitivity in the ruminative opening measures
of the second movement and when the orchestra enters it lends
sonorous support. This is a fine account of the movement where
my only reservation would be to wonder if the orchestra should,
perhaps, have played a bit more quietly at times. The rondo
finale is spirited and lively. The annotator, Klaus George
Roy, describes the finale of the Fourth concerto as “music
of wit rather than humor”. I wouldn’t disagree but I’d say
that description could serve equally for the finale of the
Third concerto. This present account is well sprung and enjoyable
and the Mozartian flavour of the puckish coda comes across
The Fourth concerto
is an Olympian work and once again soloist and conductor seem
to take a serious, even weighty, view. I wondered if the tempo
for the first movement was perhaps just a touch too stately
but that’s of a piece with the artists’ view of the music.
The Cleveland Orchestra once again display splendid precision
and strength. I admired the fine unfolding of the musical
argument in this movement and the excellence of the dialogue
between soloist and orchestra – what a fine accompanist Szell
could be! There’s an admirable balance between lyricism and
strength. Fleisher is commanding in the cadenza. On my copy
there was a tiny and momentary ‘blip’ in the sound at 17:29,
which may be a flaw on the original tape but this is the most
minor of blemishes and does not detract from one’s enjoyment
of a magisterial account of this movement.
The strength and
sonority of the Cleveland strings are heard to great advantage
in the slow movement. This short movement is such an original
conception and Fleisher, at first pitted against the orchestra
and then calmly asserting command of it, offers playing that
is dignified and stoical. The whole movement is excellent
but the closing bars in particular are splendidly poised.
The finale is sinewy and athletic in this performance. It’s
played with great vigour and admirable zest by all concerned.
The last couple of pages are a terrific ‘dash for home’ that
Fleisher and Szell make stirring and exciting.
have been well transferred by BMG/Sony. The booklet reproduces
the useful sleeve-notes from the original LP releases that,
in turn, are taken from Cleveland Orchestra programme notes.
In the Beethoven
concertos one can always say “Ah yes. But I prefer X in Number
2 and Y brings something special to the slow movement of Number
5”. I myself have established favourites in both of the concertos
under consideration here – Solomon in either or Gilels in
Number 4. But on this occasion I think we should put aside
comparisons and just be glad that these very fine performances
by Fleisher and Szell are once again available. I’m delighted
to have encountered them for the first time and I know I’ll
return to both in the future simply for pleasure. I hope BMG/Sony
will go on to reissue the remainder of the cycle.