MOZART: Piano Sonata in C Major, K. 330; Piano Sonata in E-flat Major, K. 282; Rondo in D Major, K. 485 – Leon Fleisher, piano
Sony 57339, 40:27 ****:
Sony has restored a series of its early CBS and Epic LPs exactly as they appeared–that is, with a duration of around 45 minutes–in celebration of San Francisco pianist Leon Fleisher (b. 1928), who continues active in the concert hall and in the recording studio, disseminating his musical knowledge, which extends the pedagogy of his illustrious teacher, Artur Schnabel.
The Mozart sonata album (1958-1959), despite its relative brevity, reveals the essentials of the Fleisher style: sensitive, liquid tone and filigree; attention to color and harmonic details; pearly play; a bel canto approach to phrasing; clean articulation and elastic poise throughout the contour of the musical line. While we might fault the recording ambiance as rather dry, Fleisher’s facile lyricism proceeds naturally, without mannerism. The deft figurations of the C Major Andante cantabile and the corresponding middle movement of the E-flat Sonata, its moody Menuetto, enjoy a stately grace; and we can feel a distinct pleasure in their respective developments, the slight adjustments by Fleisher so as to avoid strict repetition. The Allegro of the E-flat bounces and sings, itself dancing between Viennese and Italianate sensibilities. The rapid figurations pass by in dazzling fashion, the rhythm ever pressing us forward in bravura style. The Rondo in D basks in a combination of galant and alla musette play, Fleisher’s balancing the mercurial shifts of register and dynamics with pert acumen. Intelligent and happy Mozart at once.
DEBUSSY: Suite Bergamasque; RAVEL: Sonatine; Valses nobles et sentimentales; Alborada del gracioso – Leon Fleisher, piano
Sony 57307, 46:12 ****:
Recorded 14 July 1958, this Debussy/Ravel collation reveals Fleisher as a sensitive colorist who applies his Classical sensibility to French palette. The flexible, sustained melodic lines in Debussy never sag, even as the music indulges its penchant for water and bell effects. The Menuet from Suite Bergamasque provides a case in point, alternating staccato and legato motion while remaining entirely fluid, cast as an emotional whole, especially as the chromatic lines merge in clarion interplay. The forever popular Clair de Lune emerges from silence, much like the composer’s own The Sunken Cathedral; and Fleisher’s rendition, like those of William Kapell and George Copeland, certify that the American keyboard tradition accommodate Debussy’s style as authentically as could Vines, Casadeus, and Gieseking.
For Ravel, Fleisher adopts a slightly harder patina, the Sonatine now shimmering or declaiming with a decided edge to the sound. The patina, the plastic phrasing, could be attributed to equally adept veterans Leonard Pennario or John Browning. The Menuet movement enjoys a limpid grace, not so far from Clara Haskil’s refined manner. Valses nobles et sentimentales display a polished, even rarified version of Schubert dances, often rife with the metric ambiguities of Ravel’s brilliant La Valse. The Alborada del gracioso, moreover, gleans lofty comparisons with wizard Dinu Lipatti’s ringing inscription for sheer bravado and cascading, sultry intimations.
BRAHMS: Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34 – Juilliard String Quartet/Leon Fleisher, piano
Sony 57340, 42:10 ****:
Recorded 13 March 1963, this collaboration of Leon Fleisher and the Juilliard String Quartet in the Brahms Quintet received much critical acclaim in its own time, a direct heir to the chamber music legacy Artur Schnabel bequeathed us on records with the Pro Arte Quartet and sundry ensembles. Itself hovering between intimate and symphonic expression, the Quintet has much concerted and solo work within its broad spectra of emotions, many of whose impulses derive from Schubert and from Brahms’s own lieder. The strong, militant aspects of the writing find their balance in the often somber, melancholic chromatics of the writing. The economy of means asserts itself in the constant application of sonata-form, even utilizing the second subject of the Allegro non troppo for the introduction of the Scherzo.
Violin Robert Mann often forms a passing duo with Fleisher or with cellist Claus Adam in the course of the plaintive, sequential melodies. The wiry, razor-thin sonority of the Juilliard provides a sonic foil to Fleisher’s richly pungent keyboard sound. In the Andante–loosely derived from Schubert song, “Pause”–a distinct warmth arises from within the rising and falling figures of the main theme in the strings over broken chords in the keyboard. Superheated sparks fly in the C Minor Scherzo, its Bismarckian aggression eliciting a symphonic ethos from Fleisher and the Juilliard. Shades of Schoenberg open the last movement, then the mad homage to Schubert’s Grand Duo Sonata, fervent and impassioned until the eerie coda, with Fleisher’s wickedly wrenching the anguished rising and falling scales out of the music, the last page filled with sound and considerable fury.
LISZT: Sonata in B Minor; WEBER: Sonata No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 70; Invitation to the Dance, Op. 65 – Leon Fleisher, piano
Sony 57337; 57:55 ****:
The 1960 release on Epic Records of Leon Fleisher’s Liszt Sonata/Weber LP brought much attention, particularly because few pianists other than Arrau played Weber beyond the Invitation to the Dance, which Fleisher’s teacher, Artur Schnabel, had inscribed as a kind of homage to his old, Romantic Titan persona of past years. So it was Fleisher’s E minor Sonata of Weber (5 October 1959) that compelled us, with the brilliant, hectic Liszt B minor thrown in as a virtuoso’s grand gesture. Indeed, much blistering playing marks Fleisher’s demonic ride into the Liszt maelstrom, the likes of Horowitz and Cziffra notwithstanding. Besides splendidly monumental block chords and runs, Fleisher finds a generous measure of intimate poetry in the score, reflective, brooding, rhetorical, declamatory, and amorous. The Andante sostenuto section plays as one of the composer’s own Petrarch sonnets; suave and tender, Fleisher’s hands rather apply brush strokes than digital pressure. The last section, Allegro energico, receives from Fleisher all the demonic power requisite to its alternately passionate and contrapuntal convulsions. Fleisher sports one killer trill! By the conclusion of the Sonata, we feel as though we have experienced “life’s fitful fever” in its myriad manifestations.
Liszt himself had been a devoted advocate for the sonatas of Weber, so Fleisher’s traversal of the E Minor Sonata (28-30 December 1959) plays as a legitimate (and rare) extension of the Romantic ethos. A program, of sorts, attaches to the piece, a gloomy meditation on the struggle of reason against the forces of dislocation and insanity. Perhaps this E Minor sonata adumbrates the quartet in the same key by Smetana. Lovely, streaming scales and dotted figures, relatively diatonic, succumb to the chromatic frenzies that usurp the former call for mental clarity. Virtuosity in the service of poetry–therein lies Weber as rendered by Fleisher–and many of the figures suggest the suites of Robert Schumann. What passes for a Menuetto opens with violently jarring metrics and soon progresses into an expression of punishing rage and circular (in the trio) obsession. What “consolations” the Andante provides–despite its occasional descent into the Abyss–the Finale, via Fleisher’s inspired, light-fingered pyrotechnics, sweeps away in its wild, mad tarantella, likely that to which the visitor to Roderick Usher’s palace distinctly alludes in that narrative of mad passions.
Finally, the 1819 perennial favorite, Invitation to the Dance, rendered by Fleisher (9 December 1959) with fertile aplomb, a forward pulse that does not detract from the essential nobility of the music’s sentiment. From its sweetly intoned Introduction to the tender Coda-Epilogue, the fleet figures weave, spin, and swirl in a manner to inspire an entire epoch of waltz purveyors, from Chopin to the Strauss family. Thoroughly charming and often ravishing virtuosity on this disc.
SCHUBERT: Sonata in B-flat Major, Op. Posth., D. 960; 8 Laendler, Op. 171 – Leon Fleisher, piano
Sony 57336, 38:34 ****:
It was Artur Schnabel (1882-1951), Leon Fleisher’s teacher and mentor, who first explored the Schubert sonatas for the 20th Century, adding his especial poetry to the composer’s directives. Fleisher recorded the B-flat Sonata (14-15 July 1954) at age 26; his CBS LP appeared as ML 5061, the next numerical listing after the Glenn Gould Goldberg Variations, ML 5060.
The first quality we note in this young man’s version of the Schubert is its relative speed; no post-Sviatoslav Richter lingering over every phrase and repeat to stretch the already titanic, first-movement impulses into elongated licorice. Even so, the impression remains of grand breadth, as the G-flat trill attempts to disrupt the thin-smiled resignation of the lyric reflections. The C-sharp Minor Andante receives particularly loving attention to harmonic and dynamic detail from Fleisher, who imparts that long-breathed leisure into the music others bestow too avidly upon the first movement. Pliant pedaling, soft ostinati, and alluring arpeggios grace the A Major section, a miracle of rare device. Music-box sensibilities, con delicatezza, for the ¾ Scherzo, a far cry from the death-bed confessionals of the first two movements. Fleisher takes the supple Finale, an Allegro in 2/4, at a moderately vivacious speed, so the Rondo does trip over itself, and the long elastic line of the second theme allows itself a series of balanced phrases. The blistering finger-work trickles and sings in a superb display of poetic bravura, a modern classic of its kind.
Some ten or twelve years before Joerg Demus made his famous inscription of Schubert waltzes on a period instrument, Leon Fleisher recorded (27, 29-30 July 1959) these charming, ingratiating dances from the Landel region of Austria. Lilting and poetic, they present a limitless source of plaintive invention, perhaps Beidermeier in origin, but well transcending their socio-economic status to become timeless miniatures.
COPLAND: Piano Sonata; SESSIONS: From My Diary; KIRCHNER: Piano Sonata; ROREM: Three Barcarolles – Leon Fleisher, piano
Sony 57338, 57:50 ****:
Music by urban, American composers graces this album, recorded at an extended session, 19 December 1963 at the CBS 50th Street Studios in New York City. A “lonely energy” suffuses the abstract-expressionist spirit of the Copland Sonata, a kind of through-composed piece that keeps referring to the minor third interval doubled in the octave that begins the piece. Crystalline, vibrant sonorities inhabit the Scherzo, which Fleisher has to “punch out” in strict staccati whose quick canons suggest the influence of late Beethoven. Echoes of folk music, perhaps some religious doxology, infiltrate the Scherzo and the final Andante sostenuto, which evolves out of the second movement and juxtaposes harsh dissonances against moments of simple, diatonic harmony. More than one moment of quiet, chordal progression pays homage to Copland’s favorite sonata, Beethoven’s Waldstein.
The Sessions Albumblaetter (1937-1940) copy the spirit of Schumann in their monothematic application of consonant and dissonant energies. They perhaps betray a feeling of anxiety and agitated loss endemic to the times around WW II. The second of the group, Allegro con brio, intimates little “brio,” though its ABA structure could be seen as a concession to song-form. Tragedy looms over the stealthy Larghissimo e misterioso third piece, which occasionally lashes out in anguish. The last Diary entry is a clangorous excursion Fleisher compares to Till Eulenspiegel, though its dark pages belie its humor, in my humble estimation.
The opening of the Kirchner Piano Sonata–Lento: Doppio Movimento–would seem to take its cue from the Second Chopin Sonata; but the similarity ends soon, as the music alternates short, jabbing riffs and impulses with a serpentine version of twelve-tone rows that manage to avoid key centers. Fleisher negotiates the tricky, even grueling filigree with a rich abandon, a mosaic of extremes. Something like jazz metrics insinuate themselves into the brew, which proceeds strictly by affective contrasts. The soft repetition of a single tone near the end of the movement heralds the procedure of the Adagio, variants grouped around an obsessive, single tone, almost an eerie mimicry of Debussy’s Des pas de la neige or Voiles. The cluttered last movement has Fleisher assembling motifs from prior movements and punching, flinging, and generally barraging us with them, with the tiniest hint of Gershwin buried in the sonic morass.
What a pleasant tonic is the first of the Rorem Barcarolles (1949; dedicated to Fleisher), marked “Graceful.” Lyric in the manner of Rorem’s beloved Ravel and Poulenc, it plays out its 6/8 figures in easy, slightly percussive, tastefully modal elegance. “Tender” sounds like a Tunisian love song, although that love would be at home anywhere. Set as a series of chordal progressions, it projects a haunted, insistent atmosphere. The “Lento: Lively” opens as if it were a fugue subject; then it appropriates jazz riffs and quick runs, a Parisian ballad that accelerates into a quasi-toccata with thoughtful episodes, al played with stylistic affection by their dedicatee, whose six CDs have consumed and enthralled us for a very long afternoon.
— Gary Lemco