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Pauline Lerner

Review of New CDs of Leon Fleisher

October 30, 2008 at 4:56 AM

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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