Bach
Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (arr. Myra Hess)
Sheep May Safely Graze (arr. Egon Petri)
Scarlatti
Sonata in E, K380 (L23)
Chopin
Mazurka in C sharp minor, Op.50/3
Nocturne in D flat, Op.27/2
Debussy
Suite bergamasque – Clair de lune
Schubert
Sonata in B flat, D960
Leon Fleisher (piano)

Recorded 4-6 June 2004 in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City
CD No: VANGUARD CLASSICS ATM CD 1551
Duration: 74 minutes
Reviewed: November 2004
This is a recording that redefines quality, and makes one think again about the last performances one heard, to question if one was too generous in praise, rather too accepting of something rather generalised.
The very first note of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring says something indefinable but compelling, something different and personal; there is a tangible bond between composer, performer and listener that reflects a common experience. Leon Fleisher has suffered from dystonia, a neurological disorder that in his case has restricted his playing to the left-hand repertoire for, unbelievably, 35 years. Medical advances have now allowed him the full use again of his right hand, and his concert and recording career seems ‘born again’. (I recall in a flash his combustible account of Brahms’s D minor concerto with George Szell, recorded in February 1958.)
Vitality, depth of feeling and intellectual grasp allied to all the finer points of distinguished pianism are wonderfully displayed on this CD, recorded just a few weeks before Fleisher turned 76. The freshness of his playing maybe speaks of him ‘catching up’, and the emotional engagement that shoots through the notes is perhaps an exorcism of what must have been artistically crucifying times. The Bach items have the potential to not only send a chill down the listener’s spine but through the whole body. The Scarlatti sonata – it seems from Fleisher’s contribution to the booklet note that he didn’t know this ‘warm up’ item was being recorded – is perfectly paced and shaped with a linear and ornamental command that is innate. In the Chopin Mazurka he revels in the emotional and compositional complexity of maybe Chopin’s most elusive collection of pieces. By contrast, the Nocturne is gently and simply etched, there’s no stuttering rubato, just naturally heartfelt elucidation; and the Debussy, similarly, reveals a myriad of responses that are unfailing in nuance and atmosphere.
These six miniatures should not be thought of as preludes to the main event, for each is a jewel and so personally inscribed by Fleisher, a delightfully chiming treble for the Sheep and exquisite trills for Scarlatti, for example; however, Schubert’s ultimate sonata is one of the peaks of a pianist’s repertoire.
Fleisher relates that this sonata was his first solo recording for Columbia, a work he first played in public in the early ‘fifties. This supremely accomplished, lyrical and spacious account bears a similar dedication to that of Richter (although not sharing his timescale), and a real identification with the ‘journey’ aspects of this searching work. Fleisher observes the first-movement repeat and is particularly successful with his handling of the lead-back bars: not something formal and perfunctory but an integrated part of the sonata. Overall, it’s Fleisher’s hushed response that most draws the listener in, the tempo perfect for full expression and for satisfying the music’s direction, and which carries over into the remaining movements; the loneliness of the Andante (the closing bars hauntingly soulful), the cooling droplets of the scherzo, and the desperate force of the finale.
This is a deeply studied, very special and timeless document, beautifully recorded and, maybe, of unedited takes; the occasional finger slip survives and is swallowed whole by Fleisher’s musical artistry and personality. May there be more from Mr Fleisher in due course.

 

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