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Magic Fingers

By B.A. Nilsson

Leon Fleisher

Union College Memorial Chapel, Oct. 4

Although pianist Leon Fleisher’s hands tend to be his limbs most under scrutiny, I spent the duration of Debussy’s Submerged Cathedral—one of the composer’s evocative preludes—studying the performer’s right foot.

That’s the foot activating the “loud” pedal, allowing the instrument’s strings to vibrate freely as long as the pedal is depressed. If you’ve tried it, you know that it encourages an inchoate wash of sound.

Such wasn’t the case with the prelude, which builds chord upon chord as it fashions a portrait of—well, a submerged cathedral is as good as any other. Under Fleisher’s superbly modulated touch, the chords seemed to float (appropriately) into one another, each with a fuzzy shimmer of sound. Adding to the challenge is the slow crescendo informing the first half of the piece, even more of a test of the balance between pedal and keys.

This recital will be repeated Oct. 19 at Carnegie Hall. But I’d hardly describe the Union College concert as a warm-up. It was a magnificently realized performance, radiating the kind of vibe you only get from a seasoned performer.

Fleisher’s story is well known in classical-music circles. One of the top virtuosos of the late 1950s, he fell victim the following decade to focal dystonia, rendering his right hand useless. Years of varying therapy—including Rolfing and botox—restored that hand, and he resumed the two-handed repertory 11 years ago.

But there’s still some suspense attached. You see him settle in slowly, 78 years old and a little crookbacked, and approach the keys as if they’re an old, unreliable enemy. Then he presses the first notes of Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze and the magic begins.

Fleisher describes himself as a newcomer to Bach, which probably only means that he hasn’t programmed Bach’s works in concert—I know of no pianist who can resist the stuff. But there are strong feelings about Bach interpretation, as expressed by a friend who attended Fleisher’s recital and grumped that Bach’s keyboard works should be played on harpsichord.

From a historical perspective, it’s a valid view, but I’ve chosen to accept Bach on the piano as just that—an entity called “Bach on the piano,” subject to its own interpretive parameters. And so Fleisher’s approach, which is romantic without being overly lush, suited the simple Sheep as nicely as it did the big starburst of the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D Minor (which, according to one musical authority, is the saddest key).

As the title suggests, the fantasy part flows with next-door neighbor notes, crazy runs up and down the keyboard that also swell in a magnificent crescendo. But it was the run-up to the transition, where the intensity subsides into an introverted cadence, that really displayed Fleisher’s mastery. The fantasy thus becomes just the setting for the challenging fugue.

Bach’s Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother, a merry suite of brief moments, and Myra Hess’s arrangement of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring completed the four Bach works that bracketed Stravinsky’s Serenade in A Major for the program’s first half.

The Stravinsky was well-chosen, being itself neo-Baroque (the third-movement Rondoletto even slyly quotes from Sheep). And it also reminded us that Fleisher has long been a champion of 20th-century works, well at home in that crunchier musical language.

Certainly Debussy helped define that sound with his Préludes, composed between 1909 and 1913. Each of the 24 is its own concise world of sound; Fleisher chose three of them to open the second half. From the subtle movement of “Le vent dans la plaine” through “Cathedral” to the habanera-inflected “La puerta del vino,” it was a deft tripartite trip that finished with a virtuoso flourish.

And “La puerta” offered a well-chosen transition to the two selections by Isaac Albeniz that followed. Iberia is a collection of twelve pieces, each—like the Debussy Préludes—with an evocative title.

The program finished with three pieces by Chopin, where Fleisher cut loose with all of his interpretive equipment. Following the flashy Mazurka in C-Sharp Minor came the Nocturne in D-flat Major. You can hear how the ornamentation of Bach’s works evolved into the phraseology of a piece like this one, where long melodic lines play with your expectations before resolving. Fleisher made the most of that drama without getting at all maudlin about it.

The Scherzo No. 3 in C-Sharp Minor gave us some fireworks for the close. This is the well-known piece that features a series of stern chords immediately followed by a cascade of gentle, falling notes, and the performance was gorgeous as it gets, prompting the audience to its feet for a heartfelt ovation. Not out of sympathy for the recovered pianist, but for an artist at the top of his form.

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