Two hands

August 30, 2004

COMEBACKS ARE usually reserved for athletes, Bill Clinton notwithstanding.

We all know about cyclist Lance Armstrong, whose cancer treatments destroyed his body mass. He returned to the sport and won the Tour de France not once, not twice, but six years in a row. College basketball player Kayla Burt, felled by a heart attack in 2002, rejoined her University of Washington team this year with a defibrillator in her chest. Gymnast Paul Hamm, who flubbed a dismount so badly in the Summer Olympics that he nearly landed in a judge's lap, went on to deliver near-perfect performances.

We mourned their losses, cheered their perseverance, celebrated their returns.

Leon Fleisher possessed the resolve of those athletes, but not their youth. A physical ailment derailed his career -- 39 years ago. Focal dystonia, a neurological disorder, robbed him of the use of his right hand.

For a virtuoso pianist, that should have been the end. As an exceptional artist accustomed to fame, how could he go on? As a musician, how could he not? Mr. Fleisher turned his attention to the small repertoire of piano pieces for the left hand. He perfected them, continued teaching at the Peabody Institute, resumed performing and returned to conducting.

But he never abandoned the idea that one day he would play the piano as he had in the beginning -- with two hands.

Last week, the pianist's long slow climb toward parity hit a milestone with the debut of his first solo recording for two hands in 40 years. How apt that the opening cut on the CD is Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring.

Through the years, and myriad therapies, the 76-year-old Mr. Fleisher occasionally joined right hand and left to play a piece of music that he had performed flawlessly in the past. But rarely with ease or fully free from pain. And then a strange intervention -- injections of Botox into his right hand brought more flexibility, more power, more music.

Recitals at Carnegie Hall and Baltimore's Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and performances of rigorous signature pieces in the past year brought accolades. The debut of the CD, however, puts Mr. Fleisher before a much larger audience. It exposes him to greater scrutiny from listeners other than his fans.

Who knows how this recording will be received? Leon Fleisher may not be a kid, but this comeback deserves our respect and applause.

Bravo, maestro!

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