In the years since 1965, when a mysterious hand ailment destroyed his two-handed piano career, Leon Fleisher has played almost all the important left-handed concertos for piano and orchestra. Not until Monday night, however, had Fleisher given a left-handed solo recital. That recital in Charleston, S.C., will be followed Saturday night by one in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater -- a benefit for the Theater Chamber Players, of which Fleisher is music director.
Playing a recital is much tougher than a concerto, Fleisher says. "There's no orchestra to hide behind and -- believe me -- playing with one hand is even harder than two. When you play with two hands, there are moments when one hand can relax. And with one hand, you need different touches in different fingers so that you can create different voicings. To play a four-voice fugue with five fingers is no easy matter."
For Baltimoreans who cannot get to Saturday's recital, the good news is that Fleisher will record all of this repertory -- as well as several left-handed concertos -- for SONY Classics (formerly CBS Records). Although he will remain active as a conductor and a teacher at the Peabody Conservatory, Fleisher will be busier in the recording studios in the next year than at any time since the early 1960s.
For piano aficionados and longtime Fleisher watchers, the real thrill of hearing Fleisher in this repertory is something like a bullfight: They will be listening to one of the century's genuine super virtuosos tackle some of the most fiendishly difficult music ever written.
Fleisher's program includes: Scriabin's Nocturne and Prelude for left hand, which the great Russian composer-pianist wrote for himself when he was afflicted by a malady similar to Fleisher's; the Etude for Left Hand by Felix Blumenfeld, the teacher of Vladimir Horowitz, that he wrote for Scriabin; Brahms' arrangement for left hand (written for Clara Schumann) of Bach's famous Chaconne for Violin; and, after intermission, Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Suite, in which Fleisher will be joined by three of his string-playing colleagues in the Chamber Players.
Such brilliant, colorful and showy music was not associated with the young Fleisher (he was only 37 when his career was interrupted). Fleisher was primarily identified with the music his great teacher, Artur Schnabel, used to play: the Sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert and the concertos of Mozart and Brahms.Occasionally there would be a piece by Chopin or Ravel, but mostly Fleisher was renowned as a great musical thinker.
But there was a twist. Unlike Alfred Brendel -- who today enjoys the sort of reputation Fleisher did then, but is not considered a virtuoso -- Fleisher was adored by piano connoisseurs. No one could play the pianissimo, legato double octaves in Brahms's Concerto No. 2 so softly, so quickly or so smoothly, or negotiate the thicket of treacherously positioned black notes for right hand in Ravel's "Alborada" with such abandon and such accuracy. But as a youngster, Fleisher (as he himself now admits) was a little too much of a musical puritan to play more of this repertory -- a situation that was beginning to change when misfortune overtook him in 1965.
"Because Schnabel was interested in that music which, as he put it, was better than it can be performed, I never really got the opportunity to play the repertoire that is known as salon music," Fleisher says. "I was taught to go for high art all the time. But music is music. If you understand their style and nature, you can play some of these pieces without making them into late Beethoven piano sonatas. It's fun to do this kind of program."