October 2008

Review of New CDs of Leon Fleisher

October 29, 2008 21:56

This is continued from my blog of Oct., 2008

To celebrate Leon Fleisher’s eightieth birthday, Sony has released in digital form six of the pianist’s original vinyl recordings. I gave some background on Fleisher and reviewed two of the CDs in my blog of Oct.22, 2008. Here are reviews of the other four, including a video.

Liszt and Weber: What a difference between these two! Liszt made the pianist work so hard to play his Sonata in B minor. I really didn’t know that solo piano music could be like that – lots of sturm und drang. Weber’s works were very different. He is sometimes credited for his role in history as a forerunner of Romanticism, rather than for his work as a composer of beautiful music. His Sonata No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 70 has lyricism and rich emotional content without being “in your face” about it. I have known and loved Weber’s Invitation to the Dance since childhood, when I received a beautiful little music box, made in Switzerland, with a ballerina who danced to the music. Of course, Fleisher gave more feeling and character to the piece than my little music box did, but my music box set me up to love the piece later as “real music.”

Copland, Sessions, Kirchner, and Rorem: This recording has works of four twentieth century composers, including sonatas by Copland and Kirchner. Their sonatas were not written in the strictly classical format. Instead, the same thematic material pervades all the movements, and no movement stands independent from the others. Copland’s sonata features another change from the traditional sonata. His sonata has several nearly identical phrases piled on top of each other, and the phrases are often chords instead of melodies. The resultant structure may be aesthetically pleasing, but, for me, the music wasn’t pretty. Maybe it’s because I have old fashioned taste. I like music with melody, harmony, and rhythm. In contrast, Rorem has said that his barcarolles are “quite formal,” (ABA format) and “are meant to be ‘pleasant’ rather than ‘profound.’” These three barcarolles were dedicated to Leon Fleisher, who first performed them in 1950. I agree with the composer that these pieces are “pleasant” and “not profound.”

Schubert: Schubert was a good pianist, but not a great pianist. Accordingly, his compositions are devoid of technically difficult passages and pyrotechnics. He was very successful in writing songs, and his piano sonata in this recording has a song-like quality. The Landler was a popular dance form and a forerunner to the waltz. While most waltzes are slow and graceful, the Landlers sound like real folk dance music, with the dancers bouncing around energetically. I really enjoyed listening to them.


Please follow the link to Leon Fleisher playing the Schubert sonata on youtube.

I tried to embed the video, but it didn't work. Perhaps this is a casualty of the redesign of the website.

Brahms: I remember a conversation I had with another violinist about Brahms’s symphonies. I said that I liked them, although they were a bit ponderous. She told me that I should listen to some chamber music by Brahms. She was right. In this recording, one of my favorites in the group of re-releases, Fleisher joins with the Juilliard String Quartet to perform Brahms’s Piano Quintet in F Minor Op. 34. Brahms was an excellent pianist and felt perfectly comfortable writing for this instrument, but he was insecure about writing for other instruments. He consulted with other musicians and rewrote this piece several times. The result is gorgeous. It sounds like Fleisher has been playing with this quartet for years. The “conversations” among the musicians and the parts in which several voices unite are absolutely captivating. Whether you listen for details or just listen to the music, it is truly beautiful.

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Leon Fleisher: Review of Six New CDs

October 21, 2008 23:59

To celebrate Leon Fleisher’s eightieth birthday, Sony has released in digital form six of the pianist’s original vinyl recordings. All six were made before 1965, when Fleisher was afflicted with the rare neurological disease focal dystonia, which paralyzed two fingers of his right hand and stopped his career as a concert pianist. For the next 40 years, Fleisher conducted, taught, played concerti for the left hand, and sought a cure for his illness.

After this long hiatus, Fleisher received medical care that made his right hand useable again, and he resumed his career as pianist, while continuing to conduct and teach. Before his illness, all of his recordings were made using the technology available at that time, the phonograph record. Since very few people today own and use a phonograph, the re-release of the old vinyl recordings in digital format make the great pianist’s early recordings widely accessible. Five of the six recordings released by Sony are piano solos, and the sixth is chamber music. The composers cover a wide chronological span and a great diversity of styles.

These recordings are available as digital downloads from iTunes, Napster, and other digital vendors. CDs are available in limited numbers from ArKivMusic.com.

You can hear Leon Fleisher discuss his life as a musician and the music he plays in a series of podcasts. His talks are lively, intelligent, sincere, and a joy to listen to.

Debussy and Ravel: One of my favorites of the new recordings is a collection of piano pieces by Debussy and Ravel. All four movements of Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque are included. The most famous, used, overused, and abused is Clair de Lune, which has served as background music for many commercials, TV shows, and movies. Walt Disney even included a recording of it by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra in his first draft of Fantasia, although he later cut it to make the movie shorter. (You can watch the cut segment, which shows a white egret flying by night here.) In the hands of a great artist like Leon Fleisher, this piece is not bland background music. It is soothing and relaxing, but not mind numbing. It holds your attention and makes you feel good. I liked the other three movements of Suite Bergamasque just as much. They vary in moods and themes, and Fleisher brings out the magic in all of them. The other major piece on this recording is the well known Valses Nobles et Sentimentales by Ravel. One of my personal definitions of great art is something you can return to time after time and find it fresh and new each time. By this definition Fleisher’s performance of Ravel’s work is great art.

Mozart: When I first listened to the recording of Fleisher playing two sonatas and a rondo by Mozart, I didn’t notice anything spectacular. Then I read the liner notes and learned that these were early works by Mozart which were played on a small “piano” or equivalent in people’s homes. They contained no derring-do to show off to a large audience. I listened to the recording again and heard a lot more in it. I recognized the first piece, the Sonata in C Major, K.330. It is really not a subdued piece of music. Leon Fleisher made small changes say a lot. The Sonata in E-Flat Major, K.282, as played by Fleisher, is less subdued and more happy than the Sonata in C Major. In the Rondo in D Major, K. 485, Mozart used the lowest registers in a daring way. I enjoyed hearing three pieces written by Mozart at roughly the same time in his life, each piece strikingly different from the other two.

To be continued with reviews of the other four CDs.

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Banjo Player Plays His Instrument during Neurosurgery to Give Feedback to Surgeons

October 12, 2008 16:54

Eddie Alcock, world famous banjo player, developed a severe tremor in his plucking hand, which ended his career and nearly destroyed him personally. A group of surgeons who believed that the problem was abnormal nerve function in a very specific part of the brain operated on him. They put electrodes in a small area of his brain and sent small currents of electricity there while he was awake – and playing his banjo -- in the operating room. He told the surgeons whether his banjo playing got better or worse when they moved the electrodes. They found his “sweet spot” and left the tiny electrodes there. Now he can turn those brain cells on or off with a small electrical unit on his chest. He can play banjo professionally again, and his quality of life has rebounded.

As a former neuroscientist and current violin teacher, this makes perfect sense to me, but it still fills me with awe.

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