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Owen Mortimer

American pianist Leon Fleisher dies aged 92

12:32, 3rd August 2020

Report by Benjamin Ivry

Leon Fleisher (1928-2020) belonged to a rollicking generation of American keyboard heroes, some of whom died young, like William Kapell and Julius Katchen, or were sidelined by injury, such as Gary Graffman and Byron Janis. Fleisher himself grappled with a medical condition that limited him to the left-hand repertoire for decades, until an experimental treatment regime permitted his partial return to two-handed playing.

His medical travails fascinated punters, but Fleisher’s real posterity, apart from his doughty work as a much-beloved teacher, was in an abundant discography, with the bulk of his recordings made before his late 30s.

© Tully Potter Collection

A 1959 version of Ravel’s ‘Alborada del gracioso’ from Miroirs is biscuit-dry, totally immersed in a world of Spanish-flavoured rhythm. His playing has so much panache that at times he succeeds in making the piano sound like a guitar. That same year, Fleisher recorded a stupefying Weber Sonata No 4 in E minor, displaying thrilling virtuosity akin to the spirit of the greatest keyboard artists of the previous century.

His early Beethoven concertos captured the spirit of 19th-century Romanticism through their startling freedom of line. Even the typically glacial conductor George Szell warmed to Fleisher when they recorded Mozart’s Concerto No 25 in C major, also in 1959.

Disaster struck in 1964 when Fleisher developed focal dystonia, causing his right hand to curl involuntarily. Left-hand repertoire and conducting sustained him through the intervening years, but it was not until the early 1990s that scientific advances allowed him to begin making his comeback.

Fleisher’s return to form at the age of 75 can be heard in his 2004 album Two Hands, which features versions of Bach arrangements by Myra Hess (Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring) and Egon Petri (Sheep May Safely Graze) – the very epitome of music played with love. Indeed, Fleisher’s performance of all the works on this programme are transcendental. His delicate, gentle Scarlatti Sonata in E major K380 is complemented by a poignant rendition of Chopin’s Mazurka in C-sharp minor Op 50/3.

International Piano correspondent Stephen Wigler was a particular fan of Fleisher’s and interviewed him on numerous occasions down the years. Fleisher’s playing, writes Wigler, was ‘filled with sensitivity, delicacy, attention to detail and depth of feeling’.

Where did such artistry originate? It must have been partly innate, as by age four Fleisher was already studying with Lev Schorr, a San Francisco pedagogue who shaped the careers of Hephzibah Menuhin, Samuel Lipman and Stephen Kovacevich. Fleisher told the Cincinnati Enquirer in January 2016: ‘It was never a really good lesson until [Schorr] made you cry.’ The teacher would make amends by offering lamb chops for lunch after each scolding.

At age 9, Fleisher transcended such culinary appeasements when he was accepted as a pupil of Artur Schnabel, whose musicianship remained a beacon for the rest of the former’s life. He would also work with the Italian pianist Maria Curcio.

Writing in Musical America in 1994, the US pianist and critic Harris Goldsmith termed Fleisher’s hand injury the ‘biggest blow to American pianism since William Kapell’s demise in an airplane crash a dozen years earlier’. Yet remarkably, through sustained effort over long years, Fleisher survived artistically and managed an admirable return in old age, possibly due to what Goldsmith rightly lauded as his ‘turbulent physicality’ at the keyboard.

Fleisher’s extensive teaching activities included over 60 years as a faculty member at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. A statement issued by the Institute paid homage to ‘Leon’s remarkable gifts as a musician, pianist, and teacher … matched only by his charm, wit, intelligence and warmth as a human being … [He] provided inspiration, guidance and insight to hundreds of students over the years both in his piano studio and on the podium. His approach to teaching went as deep as possible – showing young artists how to connect a love of music to the world around them … We have lost a giant.’

Leon Fleisher, pianist, conductor and teacher, born 23 July 1928; died 2 August 2020

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