Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Leon Fleisher's Two Latest Recordings / Review

Two Hands (ATM CD 1551, recorded in 2004) is a total revelation. The programme is an unusually eloquent one, with a deliberate and conspicuous lack of barnstorming. The Bach transcriptions Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (Myra Hess) and Sheep May Safely Graze (Egon Petri) are beautifully rendered, coming to a full fruition of cantabile in the two night pieces, Chopin’s Nocturne (Op.27 No.2) and Debussy’s Clair de lune, both in the magical key of D flat major. In between these: a Scarlatti Sonata (E major, K.380) and Chopin Mazurka (C sharp minor, Op.50 no.3) are both gorgeously shaded.

All these merely whet the appetite for the main course, a glorious reading of Schubert’s final Sonata in B flat major (D.960). Time stands still in the opening Molto moderato, and even with the exposition repeat, there is much to savour in its seamless longeurs. The same goes for the meditative Andante sostenuto slow movement, with its stormy central interlude providing bold contrasts. The faster third and fourth movements breeze through almost effortlessly, and closing with one almighty sweep. One wonders how the musical world had coped with Fleisher’s nearly 40-year hiatus from this repertoire. This is a wonderful album to treasure and listen over and over.

The Journey (ATM CD 1796, recorded in 2005) is marginally less successful. The programme includes works Fleisher had planned to perform and record in the 1960s but curtailed by his right hand affliction. Bach’s Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother (BWV. 992), his only programmatic keyboard piece, and the “Traumatic” Fantasy & Fugue (BWV. 903, as Fleisher cheekily nicknamed) reveal a near-complete rehabilitation in overcoming fast and tricky passages. His mastery of counterpoint in the fugues comes close to perfection.

Mozart’s Sonata in E flat major (K.282) is two thirds successful; the opening Adagio and Minuets are sheer poetry, but the Allegro finale tends to rush fences somewhat unnecessarily. Could this be an over-compensatory measure on the part of the right hand? Chopin’s Berceuse (another gem in D flat major) follows on the successes of the earlier disc. Stravinsky’s Serenade en la was an unusual but symmetrically apt neo-Baroque choice; lots of Bachian counterpoint and figurations, but coming through with great clarity. After all this, Beethoven’s children’s favourite Fur Elise may seem almost a non sequitur, but one believes there may be far more to this selection. The first ever 2-handed work by a major composer he played as a child?

An interview with Bob Edwards comes as a bonus. Fleisher speaks ever so candidly (and modestly), and is full of humour. Revealing that he has not been cured of focal dystonia, but merely recovering, there was no bitterness to be had in his long but brave struggle. That only opened doors to new opportunities and experiences in life.

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