LEON FLEISHER, the virtuoso Baltimore pianist, lost the keyboard use of his right hand 25 years ago because he "played through pain" in the accepted techniques of the 1940s when he was young. After disaster struck, he became a leading artist in the left-hand piano literature.
Instead of solos, Fleisher mostly played concerto music with orchestras, scores written for the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in World War I. Contributors were Ravel, Prokofiev, Britten, Strauss, Schmidt, Korngold and others. Critics raved about Fleisher's "bravura storm . . . one would have sworn he was employing all 10 formidable fingers."
In more recent times, Fleisher, 62 and still bearded, has performed works composed for himself, and he has tested the solo waters and vessels. Earlier this year, he played a program of six solos and one chamber piece at the Berkshire Festival at Tanglewood in Massachusetts, where he is artistic director, and the Ravinia Festival in Illinois.
Two weeks ago, Fleisher upped the ante with his first solo-only recital at the College of Charleston, Charleston, S.C. Tomorrow night at 7:30 p.m. Fleisher comes to the Terrace Theater, Kennedy Center in Washington, with the Tanglewood-Ravinia program, his first left-hand appearance in a big city since the terrible discovery in the 1964-65 season.
Not a Wittgenstein-inspired program, the menu is also not an easy one, even for two hands.
"You remember the Horowitz 'Stars and Stripes Forever'?" Fleisher asked rhetorically about the extremely elaborate piece, wonderful to hear. The pianist is doing a similar Chinese puzzle tomorrow, Leopold Godowsky's "Symphonic Metamorphoses on the 'Schatz-Walzer' Themes from Johann Strauss' 'The Gypsy Baron'.
"It's the most complex, difficult piece I've ever done . . . for the left hand anyway", Fleisher said.
Other first-half solo pieces are Jeno Takacs' "Toccata and Fugue" (1950); Robert Saxton's "Chacony" (1988), written for Fleisher; Bach's "Chaconne from Partita II for solo violin (1720), arranged by Brahms for left hand piano (1877); Alexander Scriabin's "Prelude and Nocturne (1894), written for himself; Felix Blumenfeld's Etude in A-Flat Major written for Scriabin. Erich Wolfgang Korngold's "Suite, Op. 23" (1930), chamber music for piano left hand, two violins and cello, will be played with colleagues of the Chamber Theater Players he helped found.
At this time, Fleisher plans no recitals in Baltimore but is recording much of the solo and concerti left-hand literature for Sony Classics. Ravel and Britten concertos have been recently recorded for one CD; a Prokofiev will be added. Further, he has done or will perform world premieres of pieces written for him by Leon Kirchner, Gunther Schuller and C. Curtis-Smith. Fleisher will premiere a work by Curtis-Smith next April at the Gilmore Festival in Kalamazoo, Mich.
Fleisher continues teaching and has about 20 students now. He is a faculty member of the Peabody Conservatory, the Curtis Institute, the Manhattan School of Music and the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.
Kevin Kenner, one ex-student and top Chopin competition winner this month, played "beautifully" Tuesday at Peabody, Fleisher said. "I think he will be world class." Other talented Peabody students include Brian Ganz, who won the Long-Thibaud piano competition in Paris in February, and Stephen Prutsman, fourth-place winner in the Tchaikovsky competition this summer in Moscow.
Refining his teaching techniques for younger generations and conducting were two of the "enlightenments" that have flowed since he stopped playing with two hands, Fleisher said. "Being unable to play and teach with two hands was a very powerful force in my having to learn to articulate the subtle and ephemeral aspects of music. I became a better teacher. Talking about the music makes you terribly aware."
Fleisher, a right-hander, can use the hand, but different tasks pose different degrees of difficulty. "Writing is difficult," he said. A two-handed comeback attempt in the early 1980s was unsuccessful.
Although his right-hand malady had a lot of "cover-up names like writer's cramp," Fleisher said it was "'repetitive motion syndrome,' a dysfunction that is coming very much to the fore now with computer usage. But it's that much worse for pianists. You don't bang the computer keys. As a pianist you play not only softly, but you have to bang pianos with little sonority, in non-reverberant halls, with orchestras that play loudly."
Practicing continuously and with youthful vigor, Fleisher years ago put incredible stress and strain on the delicate muscles and tendons of his arms and wrists. He was famous early. As a 16-year-old on Nov. 4, 1944, he played Carnegie Hall -- the Brahms D Minor Piano Concerto. "When I was young, playing in the 1940s, it was OK to play through pain. Only later I knew how I had worked quite unintelligently."
Fleisher was reminded of the remarks of another pianist and Fleisher fan, Philadelphian Susan Starr, who felt that some young "wimp" pianists today incorrectly use Fleisher's story to play only 75-80 percent, without all-out effort.
You can play hard and be fine, Fleisher said. "There are healthy ways to play 105 to 110 percent and not be unhealthy. And there are unhealthy ways. Some children even today play with curved, raised fingers. It's absolutely the wrong way . . . stretching muscles, on top attacking opposing muscles. That is a great deadly physiological mistake."
Another way to avoid problems is to follow the sports medicine example, Fleisher said. "You train one day, rest the next. Train one day, rest the next. It allows the little tears to heal."