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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op 15 [37:35] Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 12 in A major, K414 [23:11)
Leon Fleisher (piano)
Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester (WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln)/André Cluytens (Beethoven); Georg Ludwig Jochum (Mozart)
rec. Saal 1, Funkhaus, Cologne, 25, 29 March 1957 (Mozart), 7 March 1960 (Beethoven) ICA CLASSICS ICAC 5121 [61:03]
Following on from its predecessor BBC Legends, ICA Classics has assumed the mantle of unlocking broadcast archives held by major radio stations and, in some cases, from private individuals. These include, not only the BBC in London, but SWR in Stuttgart and WDR in Cologne, the source of these present recordings. The two concertos featured have never been issued before and constitute a valuable document. They represent two rare examples of Fleisher recorded live. The release is timed to coincide with the pianist’s eighty-fifth birthday.
!928 was a fruitful year for the birth of pianists in America. As well as Fleisher’s entry into the world, Gary Graffman and Byron Janis claim a similar vintage. Like Janis, Fleisher developed hand problems which adversely affected his career. In the 1960s he lost the use of his right hand due to a neurological condition diagnosed as focal dystonia. This affects both individual muscles and groups, resulting in involuntary muscular contractions. If the hand is affected, as was the case with Fleisher, the fingers adopt abnormal postures, curling into the palm or extending outward. This steered his career into a new direction in the 1970s when he took up conducting. Then, more recently, he regained use of his right hand after various treatments, including botox, aromatherapy and Zen Buddhism enabling something of a comeback.
The recordings here are fitting repertoire for Fleisher who, as a child prodigy, went to study with Artur Schnabel, a pianist noted for his Beethoven interpretations. At the age of sixteen he performed with the New York Philharmonic and Pierre Monteux. The conductor on that occasion, referred to Fleisher as ‘The Pianistic find of the Century’. I have always enjoyed his playing, and I would single out his traversals of the two Brahms piano concertos with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra as an outstanding achievement.
The Beethoven Concerto was taped in 1960, the conductor being the Belgian André Cluytens. The opening movement is a relaxed and sunny affair, not as hard-pressed as his recording with Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. Cluytens provides a sensitive backdrop to Fleisher’s magnificent grasp of the work. The second movement is lyrical, passionate and exudes warmth. Those qualities of poetry, profundity and spirituality instilled in him by Schnabel are to the fore in Fleisher’s conception. In the third movement both pianist and orchestra give us a run for our money with a brisk and energized performance full of wit, humour and joie de vivre.
From three years earlier, the Mozart was taped in 1957, this time the conductor being Georg Ludwig Jochum, the less-famous brother of Eugen. It is a performance that exudes youthful freshness. Fleisher’s exquisite phrasing, beauty of tone and sensitive control of dynamics makes this both compelling and captivating. Jochum judges the ebb and flow well, all the time treading the middle-ground. The second movement has a graceful simplicity. The finale is upbeat and characterized by a beguiling charm.
The sound of these recordings, now over fifty years old is remarkably clear and transparent. Both concertos were taped in mono. Excellent liner-notes are provided by Jed Distler in English and German. This is a valuable document from the early career of a great pianist, whose physical disability left a hiatus in his recorded legacy.