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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.