Unearthed Gems from Leon Fleisher's Past


An American-born pianist, Fleisher was a child prodigy who studied with Artur Schnabel. In 1950 he moved to Europe to pursue his career, which paid off when he won the Queen Elisabeth Piano Competition of Belgium in 1952. In this time, there was an abundance of radio orchestras, and the young Fleisher was a popular guest soloist. Released earlier this year -- I've been meaning to review them for months -- the recordings here are examples.

The participants' credentials in the Beethoven, recorded in 1960, are excellent. Fleisher studied with Schnabel, who studied with Theodor Leschetizky, who studied with Carl Czerny, who studied with Beethoven; Cluytens recorded all the Beethoven Symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic starting in 1957, that organization's first recorded Beethoven cycle -- consider how much respect this implies for a Belgian-born French conductor to have beaten Karajan himself to the punch in this repertoire.Of course, credentials don't trump results, but this is an excellent reading, lively tautness in the outer movements (including a stunning rendition of Beethoven's longer cadenza) strongly contrasted with one of the most tenderly lyrical readings of the slow movement that you will ever hear (Jed Distler's as-usual perceptive and informative notes to this issue, the first on CD, point out that Fleisher's nervousness resulted in a 'clinker' at the start, but corrected for this edition). Cluytens definitely had some influence on the interpretation, as it offers much the same qualities found in his aforementioned symphonies cycle: clean, acutely balanced sound; devoid of quirks yet full of energy and joy and "bounce," most particularly and aptly in the scintillating finale. There are some very slight moments of not-quite-perfect coordination between the soloist and orchestra in the finale, but nothing that stands in the way of enjoyment of the overall effect. Yes, a few years later Fleisher made an exemplary studio recording of Beethoven's First with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, but this one breathes more freely while also displaying more depth and weight in the orchestra's tones.

Fleisher also, after his recent comeback, recorded this Mozart concerto recorded in 1957, but the freshness of this much earlier reading is positively beguiling. Jochum's accompaniment does not offer the lightness we've become accustomed to in recent decades, but neither is it ever too heavy. At all times he defers to the soloist, whose graceful playing here fully deserves the spotlight it's accorded.

There are no complaints at all with the close mono sound, which is no impediment to an appreciation of these wonderful recordings made all the more valuable by the unfortunate several decades in which Fleisher's problems with his right hand prevented his artistry from being more thoroughly documented. - Steve Holtje


Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor who recently composed and recorded the soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of DaysHe and Mr. Shipp also spoke for another feature published elsewhere.