A magical evening with Leon Fleisher

Harvey SteimanAspen, CO Colorado
Leon Fleisher

ASPEN Leon Fleisher ambles to the piano, sets his music on the stand, and bows graciously to the audience, including a phalanx of students seated upstage in Harris Hall. There is nothing grand or dramatic about his appearance. He slumps onto the bench, raises it slightly, peers at the music through his black-rimmed glasses, and starts to play.And magic happens.He turns 79 next week, and the volcanic technique that made his reputation earlier in his career has mellowed. He occasionally flubs a note in the right hand, an artifact of the focal dystonia that robbed him of its use for 30 years, forcing him to perform only works for left hand until 1995.

As this recital Wednesday showed, minor slips hardly matter, not when Fleisher’s playing digs so deep into the music and exposes its meaning so clearly. When he brings to life three scene-painting preludes by Debussy, with which he began the second half of his program, he opens a door for us into the composer’s mind.The short set began with “Le vent dans la plaine” (“the wind on the plain”), and you could feel the wheat rustling with the delicate fluttering of Fleisher’s hands on the keyboard. In “Le cathédrale engloutie” (“the engulfed cathedral”), he perfectly painted the gauzy fog around the moving chords. And “La puerta del vino” (“the wine gate”) danced with the rhythms of Spain, but one step removed, as if in a distant recollection.The first half sandwiched several pieces by Bach, some simple, some more ambitious, around Stravinsky’s “Serenade in A,” a piece that alludes to Bach’s form and style while using a musical language with more harmonic bite. Fleisher invested the piece with plenty of charm, but clearly his heart was with Bach.

In “Sheep May Safely Graze,” a tender piece that every young piano student knows (and is something of a signature item for Fleisher), the pianist did more than simply balance the melodic line against the counterpoint. It seemed as if each voice was singing independently, coming together to create harmony. Bach’s Capriccio in B-flat major “On the Departure of his Most Beloved Brother,” offered scene painting of another type.After the Stravinsky Serenade came the familiar “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” a study in sustained sense of devotion, which led to the most challenging music of the evening, Bach’s “Chromatic” Fantasy and Fugue in D minor. Fleisher’s playing gives Bach a softer edge than is typical today. Rather than try to emulate a harpsichord, Fleisher lets the piano be a piano. In tone, it’s a throwback to the old, romantic approach to Bach, but it has a steelier backbone and never becomes indulgent. I got the feeling that if Bach had a modern piano, this is how he’d play it.In the second half, after the Debussy came two gentle pieces by the Spanish composer Albéniz. A final Chopin set included the Mazurka in C-sharp minor and the Nocturne in D-flat major, two relatively serene pieces that display an uncharacteristic attention to counterpoint, a nice nod to the first half of Bach, and both beautifully realized.

The set was to conclude with the fearsome Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp minor, but Fleisher turned to the audience, said that he had overestimated his ability to acclimate to the altitude, having just arrived the previous weekend. “Rather than pant through the Scherzo,” he deadpanned, he would instead play Brahms’ arrangement for piano left hand of Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 for solo violin.All those years of performing music for left hand showed in every bar of the Chaconne. It played to Fleisher’s strengths, namely a dazzling left hand, immense depth of musical understanding and the dramatic sense to make the music as monumental as it should be. He could not have made a better choice to finish the concert.Harvey Steiman’s weekly commentary about the Aspen Music Festival is founded in 14 years of attendance and a background as a professional critic.


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