Leon Fleisher, who has just passed away at 92, was one of many brilliant American postwar pianists who began by storming concert stages before getting sidelined due to illness, injury or career fatigue: Gary Graffman, John Browning, Van Cliburn, Byron Janis…
In Fleisher’s case, he lost use of his right hand and became a celebrated teacher. (Alex Ross’s article The Sonata Seminar documents his coaching of Inon Barnatan and Yuja Wang.) Fleisher never stopped learning, and a late recital of mostly left hand repertoire, All the Things You Are, is a soulful and profound listen.
There are many excellent Fleisher records from his heyday, especially a long sequence of concertos with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. It was thrilling moment: the country was full of Eisenhower-era optimism and had agreed to make a few key classical musicians superstars. Szell was from Budapest via Vienna, but his triumphant story in Cleveland was as American as apple pie.
In George Szell’s Reign by Marcia Hansen Kraus, trumpeter Bernard Adelstein remembers, “[Fleisher] was one of Szell’s favorites and played with us often. We called him our house pianist. He was so great.” While born in San Francisco, Fleisher studied with Old World master Artur Schnabel (another key superstar for Americans) and thus was a perfect protégé for Szell; not just musically, but for the narrative of American classical musicians being anointed by a lineage “that goes back to Beethoven himself.” Some consider the Szell/Fleisher recordings of the two Brahms concertos and the five Beethoven concertos to be competitive with anyone else since.
The 1960 disc of Schumann and Grieg was almost a populist offering, two fun A minor concertos that can be packaged together like Cav/Pag. It’s not the very deepest repertoire, but there’s nothing to condescend about, either. Szell was 63 and Fleisher was 32.
Mvt. 1. A genius, a fantasist, a romantic poet for the ages, Schumann was perhaps not a born concerto composer. Nonetheless, Robert has a good time taking a simple melody through keys and even styles, rendering the A minor motto as an A-flat nocturne for the development section. (Franz Liszt certainly paid attention to this somewhat mono-thematic movement.) Szell has light and shade in his beat, of course, there’s no other way to do it. However, like another American icon, Arturo Toscanini, Szell’s feel was mostly precise and rather basic. Generally band and soloist march through the movement with barely any rubato. This restraint pays off big when it releases into a fervent and astonishing piano cadenza played to the hilt. As might be expected, a composer best-known for surreal solo piano music offers his most personal music at this verdant moment. An “all hands on deck” coda with odd bars is truly exciting.
Mvt. 2. Some of Schumann’s inversions are in the wrong place and go on too long, recalling Thelonious Monk. The piano and orchestra kid each other about domestic matters. This is the real Schumann: beautiful. Fleisher’s tone is glorious, as are the various sections of the Cleveland Orchestra.
Mvt. 3. Brilliant horn fifths launches a melody that circles around without eating its tail. Done with ignoring the genre, Schumann is ready to lay down the law at last. Fleisher’s technical security gives extra burnish to what could be quite choppy passagework in the hands of most pianists. A 2/4 “march” written against the given triple meter is a bit challenging to the Clevelanders; one can understand why Szell chose to be a martinet (although letting it all be more organic would have also been a valid choice). Schumann traverses a constellation of keys, waltzes unashamedly, and almost has trouble letting go of the one movement that scans as a proper concerto.
Mvt. 1. The piano concerto is probably Grieg’s most familiar work and descends directly from the Schumann. (Grieg heard Clara Schumann play the older work in concert.) Grieg was in the vanguard of musical nationalism and his use of modal Norwegian folk materials is glittering and effective. Like much of Liszt (another big influence on this piece) and unlike anything by Schumann, the Grieg piano concerto is built to be understood perfectly the first time in concert. Fleisher and Szell have a good time romping through the basic argument. As with the Schumann, the cadenza is the highlight of the movement: The pianist scolds the heavens and the audience hangs on every utterance.
Mvt. 2. In retaliation for losing the first round, the Clevelanders double down on their bronze sonority for the opening paragraph of the adagio. One can hear the future Rachmaninoff and Gershwin in the harmonies of this perfectly-proportioned movement. A few minute discrepancies in ensemble between piano and band are merely acts of passion, a welcome reminder of the delicate nature of pre-digital recording.
Mvt. 3. Folk dance, exotic harmonies, bombast. Not the strongest movement; while I’d argue this concerto is better than the Schumann as a concerto, Robert maintains and even builds his argument to a more convincing finish than Edvard. At times Grieg is just writing some notes, and undoes the structural power of his rondo form with too strong a finish in A minor before the enjoyable delicacies of F major. Still. It must be done, and who better than Fleisher and Szell, at the peak of their powers, when their country ruled the waves and wind was at their back?