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Pauline Lerner

Leon Fleisher: Review of Six New CDs

October 22, 2008 at 6:59 AM

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

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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