Fleisher plays colorfully with two hands

Classics - some might be called chestnuts - get classy treatment at pianist's fingertips

CD Review

September 20, 2006|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,sun music critic

The wonder that is Leon Fleisher chalks up yet another remarkable achievement with yesterday's release of what is only his second recording of two-hand piano music in more than four decades.

Leon Fleisher: The Journey, from Vanguard Classics, offers renewed evidence that, at 78, the Baltimore-based keyboard artist keeps pushing back the twilight of his career to enjoy another gratifying day in the sun.

Denied the full use of his right hand in 1964 due to a neurological disorder called dystonia, Fleisher has in recent years returned to ambidexterity, thanks to injections of Botox. He's the first to tell you that all is far from cured in that right hand - "Once a dystonic, always a dystonic," he tells XM Radio's Bob Edwards on an engaging, often-amusing bonus interview disc included in the new release.

But it's hard to remember that the pianist still has any limitations left when you hear him in full swing, whether in person (his recital last spring for the Shriver Hall Concert Series was deeply satisfying) or on disc.

Like his much-acclaimed 2004 comeback CD on Vanguard Classics, Leon Fleisher: Two Hands, the sequel finds the artist not just in impressive technical control but in a mood that can only be called musically loving. His program contains works he performed in his early years but never got around to recording. It's well worth the wait.

Although The Journey doesn't contain any grandly scaled works, like the late Schubert sonata that made Two Hands doubly enriching, the repertoire offers a couple of the same composers - Bach, Chopin - and a keyboard chestnut (Debussy's Clair de lune on the first disc, Beethoven's Fur Elise here).

Bach's Capriccio in B-flat, commonly known by the subtitle "On the Departure of His Beloved Brother," is eloquently delivered, each phrase carefully, colorfully limned. (The breaks between movements are allowed to go on too long, making the music seem a little disjointed.)

The same composer's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor - Fleisher likes to call it the "Traumatic Fantasy and Fugue" - emerges in splashes of vivid tone. Rushing swirls of notes in the Fantasy portion have great clarity and expressive punch; the fugue never loses momentum or focus.

Mozart's Sonata in E-flat, K. 282, becomes a lesson in elegant pianism in Fleisher's hands - unfussy, sensitive to every melodic contour and dynamic shading. Neither prettified nor turned into cool abstraction, the performance is, in every sense, full of life.

The pianist approaches Chopin's long-breathed Berceuse with no sentimentality, yet has poetry to spare. He is not so concerned with dreaminess here as with a stream-of-consciousness momentum, the right hand spinning idea after idea around a gently reiterative bass line. A softer touch overall would have made that flow even more engaging, but the spontaneity in the playing proves highly effective.

Stravinsky's neo-classical Serenade in A inspires a bracing performance that makes the most of each bold harmonic splash.

And then there's the finale to this impressive recital - a piece so hackneyed (and just plain hacked to death) that few pianists of any stature will go near it anymore.

But Fleisher plays Fur Elise as if the ink were still drying on the score and all the romanticizing of it had never occurred. He keeps it moving briskly and crisply, and he limits pedaling, in the process ridding the music of excess poetic baggage. The result is refreshing and persuasive, like everything else on this welcome recording.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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