Leon Fleisher & Musicians from Peabody

Liebeslieder Walzer, Op.52
Toccata and Fugue for Piano Left-Hand, Op.56
Bach, arr. Brahms
Partita in D minor for Unaccompanied Violin, BWV1004 – Chaconne
Nouvelles Aventures

Leon Fleisher (piano & conductor)
Katherine Jacobson Fleisher & Marian Hahn (piano)
Bonnie Lander (soprano), Diane Schaming (mezzo-soprano), Jayson Greenberg (tenor) & James Rogers (baritone)
Musicians from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 11 December, 2010
Venue: Kaufmann Concert Hall, 92nd Street Y, New York City

This concert was to have been the second of three events in the 92nd Street Y’s “In Focus: Leon Fleisher” series, with four-hand piano music by Brahms coupled with Ligeti’s “Aventures” and “Nouvelles Aventures”. Unfortunately, recent surgery on Fleisher’s arthritic right thumb forced him to cancel a mid-November solo recital, and to modify the programme of this concert by replacing the Brahms Opus 39 Waltzes with two works for the left-hand – the Toccata and Fugue for Piano Left-Hand by the Hungarian composer Jenö Takács, and the Chaconne from J. S. Bach’s D minor Partita for unaccompanied violin as arranged by Brahms.

Leon FleisherFleisher is, of course, the unparalleled master of the left-hand repertory, which he had to play for some 30-plus years before successful treatment of his neurological disorder allowed him to resume two-handed playing several years ago. Fleisher’s recuperative status will not affect the third event in the series, an interview on December 12 with Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette (who is also co-author with Fleisher of his memoir, “My Nine Lives”) and a screening of Nathaniel Kahn’s Academy Award-nominated film, “Two Hands: The Leon Fleisher Story”.

This concert featured musicians from the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, the conservatory at which Fleisher holds an endowed chair. Pianists Katherine Jacobson Fleisher (Fleisher’s wife) and Marian Hahn are also members of the Peabody faculty, and the vocal soloists are recent Peabody graduates (in one case a current graduate student there). Seven instrumentalists from Peabody performed in Ligeti’s “Aventures” and “Nouvelles Aventures”.

“Liebeslieder Walzer” for Vocal Quartet and Piano Four Hands is the earlier of two such collections by Brahms. Most of the vocal textures in these ‘love-song waltzes’ include all four voices or pairs of either male or female voices, and in this performance the vocalists shone in their beautifully balanced singing. Particularly impressive was Jayson Greenberg’s honeyed voice and delicate phrasing in solo passages. Bonnie Lander gave a fine, heartfelt account of ‘Wohl schön bewandt’, and although Diane Schaming and James Rogers had no extended solos, they contributed admirably to the ensemble’s cohesion. The pianists – Katherine Jacobson Fleisher in the upper registers and Marian Hahn in the lower – did a fine job of capturing Brahms’s infectious waltz rhythms and characteristic sonorities.

Leon Fleisher’s playing of the Takács and Bach/Brahms pieces was superb, their effectiveness augmented by the magnificent sound produced by the combination of Fleisher, the Steinway piano and the acoustical properties of the Kaufmann Concert Hall. Fleisher’s comment that the Takács was influenced by Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue was all but superfluous, as the kinship between the two works was immediate apparent. The simplicity and clarity of the opening passages gave way to a moodier atmosphere, culminating just before the Fugue in a long-held bass note, above which the melody rose and then died away. The Fugue began softly with each voice clear and distinct, but the density and chromaticism of the music increased as it went on, building in dramatic intensity and then returning to its initial simplicity before picking up in tempo and volume as Fleisher drove to the work’s dramatic conclusion. This work – and Fleisher’s playing – brilliantly bridged three centuries: an eighteenth-century baroque form embellished with nineteenth-century romantic pianism and twentieth-century sonorities.

Fleisher noted before performing the Bach Chaconne that it was really a misnomer to call this version an “arrangement”, since every note is by Bach himself, with Brahms having merely transposed it down one octave. It is rather surprising that, unlike virtually every other work in the left-hand literature, Brahms’s transcription (as it may be more accurately labelled) was not intended for a particular one-handed pianist. Brahms simply found the left-hand adaptation pleasing and faithful to the original work for violin in terms of the “degree of difficulty, the nature of the technique [and] the rendering of the arpeggios”. Ironically, Brahms’s score was received by Clara Schumann, to whom it was dedicated, just after she sustained an injury to her right arm. “However did you know?” she wrote back to him. Fleisher did indeed preserve much of the character of Bach’s original composition, mimicking the violin when playing arpeggiated chords that could not be played with a single bow-stroke, but he also took full advantage of the piano’s greater dynamic power. Fleisher held the audience spellbound as, through superb articulation and phrasing, he built the music to tremendous peaks, interspersed with gentle valleys.

Ligeti’s “Aventures” and “Nouvelles Aventures”, composed in the early 1960’s, were a hoot – quite literally! The minutely detailed scores call on the three singers (Lander, Schaming and Rogers) to emit strange vocalisations, including panting, laughing, crying, chattering, shouting, arguing, barking, howling and hissing – all using a non-existent language and accompanied by facial expressions and gestures prescribed by the composer. There were also periods in which the singers were silent, sometimes mouthing unspoken words and sometimes holding frozen postures. All three singers carried out this absurdist scenario with great skill and humour, with Rogers being especially amusing. Accompanying the singers was an odd collection of instruments: flute, french horn, cello, double bass, harpsichord, piano, celesta and percussion. All of these Peabody musicians, conducted by Leon Fleisher, were challenged by Ligeti to make some unusual sounds, with percussionist Tomasz Kowalczyk having the most bizarre demands placed on him, including striking and rubbibg a suitcase with a peculiar assembly of objects, and crashing a tray of glassware to the floor just prior to the conclusion of “Nouvelles Aventures”.

Originally these scores were meant to shock and amuse; the audience here displayed more of the latter reaction. I observed only one person exiting the hall during the brief silence that separated the two pieces, and heard but a solitary “boo” at the concert’s end. There was, however, much laughter throughout the two works, evoked in part by their structure – audiences find it hard to reciprocate a lengthy silence – but principally owing to the delightful performances by the vocalists and musicians.

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