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Fleisher live v1 DHR8158
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Leon Fleisher (piano)
Live Volume 1
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto no.1 in D minor, Op.15 [49:37] (1)
Piano Concerto no.2 in B flat major, Op.83 [49:01] (2)
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756–1791)
Piano Concerto no.23 in A major, K488 [24:35] (3)
Piano Concerto no.25 in C major, K503 [29:47] (4)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Monteux (Brahms)
Musica Aeterna Orchestra/Frederic Waldman (Mozart K488)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/George Szell (Mozart K503)
rec. live, Tanglewood 1958 (1), 1962 (2); New York 1964 (3); Salzburg 1957 (4)
DOREMI DHR-8158/9 [74:14 + 78:49]

The year 1928 was a fruitful one 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, later, he regained use of his right hand after various treatments, including botox, aromatherapy and Zen Buddhism enabling something of a comeback. Graffman, likewise, suffered a hand problem, spraining the ring finger of his right hand in 1977, ultimately forcing him to stop performing with his right hand altogether around 1979. This finger sprain may have been a trigger for focal dystonia.

The four live recordings we have here predate Fleisher’s hand problems and we can savour his supreme artistry at its height. The performances of the two Brahms concertos and two of Mozart’s popular piano concertos were set down between August 1957 and November 1964.

Many will be familiar with the Fleisher/Szell collaboration in the Brahms Piano Concertos, recorded commercially in 1958 and 1962. These recordings have garnered much critical acclaim and stand shoulder to shoulder with the highly praised Gilels/Jochum traversals. In these live airings, both performed at Tangewood, though on different dates, Fleisher pairs up with the French conductor Pierre Monteux, who described Fleisher as “the pianistic find of the century”. Both concertos test the pianist’s technical skill to the limit, as well as requiring artistic maturity of the highest level. The First Concerto is the work of a young man, expressing virility, energy, rage and tenderness. Monteux is robust in the opening tutti, and both conductor and soloist bring out the opulence of the music. The slow movement is lyrical expansiveness and poetically introspective.

The Second Concerto is monumental in scale, cast in four movements. It’s been described as a "symphony with piano obligato". Once again a phenomenal technique is called for, and when you hear Fleisher dispatching the opening cadenza’s difficult hand-crossings with masterful smoothness, you know he’s fully up to the job. Monteux’s stormy and craggy orchestral direction confers a forceful intensity to the music. There’s plenty of fire and drama in the second movement, and the slow movement features a particularly lovely cello solo.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major is one of his most engaging works. I’m afraid this performance from November 22 1964 disappoints. It’s mainly a question of tempi. The first movement is more briskly paced than you’ll be used to, and lacks the crucial element of genteel serenity that distinguishes it. The slow movement works better, revealing the darker, more introspective side of Mozart. There’s radiance in Fleisher’s playing, tenderness in every note and passing touches of pathos. The finale, however, is rushed with the woodwind, at times, struggling to keep up. Not a performance I’ll be returning to.

I much prefer Fleisher’s performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major, K503 with George Szell and the Berlin Philharmonic, taped August 3 1957 at the Salzburg Festival. Szell brings weight, thrust and bite to the orchestral tuttis, and there’s grandeur, formality, an abiding sense of architecture and structure and an “Olympian” feeling throughout. Fleisher achieves a beautiful translucent, bell-like tone in the middle movement. The finale, probably my favorite among the composer’s piano concerto finales, is carefree, joyous and relaxed, the pianist achieving some marvellous pearl-like finger-work and evenness of tone.

I laud Doremi for making these live airings available. The transfers are effective and serviceable. Announcements and applause are retained. The booklet contains the familiar one-page biography of the pianist by Jack Silver. All told, you’ll be richly rewarded here.

Stephen Greenbank

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