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Bridge releases an album of (mostly) left-hand explorations by Leon Fleisher

Pianist Leon Fleisher at the 2007 Kennedy Center Honors
Pianist Leon Fleisher at the 2007 Kennedy Center HonorsPhoto by Nancy Ostertag/Getty Images

Pianist Leon Fleisher was born in San Francisco on July 23, 1928. A few weeks after his 85th birthday he began a series of recording sessions in the Gould Recital Hall of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Three days of recording in August of 2013 were followed by another two in January of 2014, and the results were released at the beginning of this month by Bridge Records in a new album entitled All the Things You Are. As is well known, Fleisher had lost the use of his right hand in 1964 through focal dystonia. While that condition is still with him, he has been able to lessen the symptoms through Botox injections. Nevertheless, six of the seven compositions on this album were composed to be played by the left hand alone; and two of them were composed specifically for Fleisher.

I have had only one opportunity to listen to Fleisher in a concert performance. This was in April of 2011, after his Botox therapy had begun, when he came to San Francisco to give a recital with Jaime Laredo. This was one of those wild-horses-couldn’t-drag-me-away events, since the program consisted entirely of music by Franz Schubert; and, to be more specific, all the works on the program were composed by Schubert before he had reached the age of 21. Having attended a Piano Master Class that Fleisher had given at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in October of 2008, I was aware of how cerebral he could be; but I was not prepared for how those cerebrations could be engaged to bring out so much of the excitement emerging from Schubert’s youthful enthusiasm.

There is more than a fair share of cerebration in this new album, but I am not sure there is as much excitement. I would say that Fleisher is at his most visceral in performing a short piece that Leon Kirchner composed for his left hand in 1995 (which was never actually assigned a title by the composer). The work was inspired by two poems, Emily Dickinson’s “Wild Nights” and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Renascence.” Since the music divides neatly into two sections, I assume that each poem has its own section. The accompanying booklet includes the image of the first three systems from Kirchner’s manuscript, along with a single line from Dickenson and Fleisher’s penciled fingerings.

When I wrote about a retrospective album of Kirchner’s music in January of 2013 (which included a song cycle of six Dickinson poems), I was struck by what I called Kirchner’s “sense of literary discourse.” That sense is so acute in this left-hand piano solo that the poems that inspired it still thrive, even in the absence of their own words. My guess is that Fleisher shared Kirchner’s love of those poems, meaning that he contributed as much as Kirchner did to making this short piece so impressive.

I am afraid I was less impressed by the other piece composed for Fleisher’s left hand, George Perle’s Musical Offerings written between 1997 and 1998. To be fair, however, I may simply have been annoyed by the sloppiness of the booklet notes. In this case Perle’s typewritten letter to Fleisher has been included, which included the sentence:

These three “Musical Offerings” are collectively for you and individually for the three musical “victims,” “martyrs,” or “sacrifices” to whom the individual pieces are respectively dedicated.

Sadly, Ray Sprenkle, the author of the booklet notes, never took the trouble to identify those three individuals. On the basis of what I know about Perle, it would not surprise me if the “martyr” of the set was Anton Webern (given the cruel circumstances behind his death). However, if Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg were to fit into the other two nouns, it would require more of a stretch of the imagination than I could muster; and I honestly do not know how much Perle was aware of the work of those composers who perished in the Nazi concentration camps.

Far more interesting is the left-hand prelude that Federico Mompou composed in 1930. This was the sixth in a collection of twelve preludes composed between 1927 and 1960. (Here is the source of another quibble with the booklet. I have no problem with the decision to put a French accent over the first E in “prelude.” However, if that’s what the writer wants to do, (s)he should at least use the right accent!) I found Stephen Hough’s comment about Mompou composing “the music of evaporation” to be a gratuitous distraction from the possibility that Alexander Scriabin may have been in the back of Mompou’s mind when he composed this particular prelude. (Scriabin also composed a prelude for the left hand, but that is not the prelude that seems to be influencing Mompou here.)

Of the remaining tracks Earl Wild’s left-hand arrangement of George Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” (the fourth of Wild’s Seven Virtuoso Études on Popular Songs) was far more expressive and convincing that Steven Prutsman’s take on Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are,” Johannes Brahms’ left-hand arrangement of the chaconne from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1004 partita for solo violin in D minor felt dutiful but unconvincing, and “Thoughts of Evelyn” by Dina Koston, who co-directed the Theater Chamber Players with Fleisher, came across as an idle exercise. It is hard to come away from this recording without thinking that Fleisher could have been better served on the landmark occasion of his 85th birthday. Sadly, the listener is left more with an it-might-have-been experience.