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Pauline Lerner

Happy Eightieth Birthday, Leon Fleisher

September 4, 2008 at 6:33 AM

An eightieth birthday is always an event to celebrate, but for Leon Fleisher it’s special in several ways. First, he still conducts and plays the piano beautifully (See my blog of August 18, 2008). Second, he overcame a major block in his brilliant career. The block started at age 37, when he was stricken with the disease focal dystonia, which paralyzed two fingers of his right hand. At that time, he turned to teaching and conducting and occasionally performing piano pieces written for the left hand.

During these years, Fleisher kept looking for a treatment or cure of his disease. He finally found complete relief of his symptoms from a combination of Rolffing (a kind of deep massage) and injections of botox into the junctions of nerve cells and muscle cells deep inside his paralyzed fingers. Hand or finger focal dystonia is generally triggered by repetitive motions of the fingers and is more common in musicians than in members of other professions. There are other treatments which have brought relief to other musicians, including Steven Leung, a v.com member with focal dystonia who started a discussion of the disease and its treatment on v.com in 2006. Leon Fleisher, who once again is an outstanding concert pianist who plays with both hands, is also an active spokesperson for Freedom to Play, an education and outreach group created by the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation.

To celebrate Fleisher’s eightieth birthday, Sony Classical has released for the first time in digital format six of Fleisher’s recordings made between 1954 and 1963, before he became dystonic. Until now, these recordings have only been available complete on vinyl discs. I believe that re-releasing them in digital form is great. There must be many vinyl recordings of virtuosos which are all but lost to current listeners. Very few people have and use phonographs. (One of my eleven year old students once asked me what a record player is.) Although vinyl recordings can be converted to CD format by knowledgeable individuals, the process is very slow and tedious, especially if these people clean up the recording by removing hisses and crackles. Many people believe that the sound of the original vinyl recording is superior to that of the CD made from it because the latter lacks some of the very high frequencies present on the original vinyl disc. Accepting that this is true, very few people today listen to phonograph recordings, and there is a limited number of these recordings available. The re-release of the original recordings in digital format makes them available to many, many more listeners.

Five of the new CDs are Fleisher solos, and the sixth is a quintet for piano and strings. Specifically, they are

The re-releases are available from iTunes, Napster, Rhapsody, and other major digital outlets. Sony has
provided sound samples from each of the six re-releases at http://www.sonybmgmasterworks.com/leonfleisher/ . The original liner notes by Konrad Wolff and Charles Burrare are available only from iTunes. CDs, complete with each album’s original cover art and liner notes, are only available through ArkivMusic. I’m so glad that the original liner notes are also being re-released. I enjoyed reading them when they came with the old vinyl recordings, and I learned a lot about music that way.

Another way Sony has celebrated Fleisher’s eightieth birthday is by producing a series of in-depth podcasts with Fleisher. The podcasts run about to twenty minutes each. Add to Fleisher’s impressive list of talents a new one: raconteur. He talks about early influences on him; his feelings about the music he has played; his experiences with the musicians he has played or worked with, including the notorious George Szell; and his experience with dystonia. His talks are easy to listen to, but also riveting. I stayed up way too late one night listening to them.

Now we have two new ways of celebrating Fleisher’s eightieth birthday: the re-release in digital format of a half dozen of his early recordings and the free podcasts in which he discusses some fascinating aspects of his life as a musician. Happy eightieth birthday, Leon Fleisher!

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