Leon Fleisher

The Essential Leon Fleisher

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Sony's The Essential Leon Fleisher covers the first and second parts of the pianist's career, from his early successes to his recordings of piano left-hand literature after developing focal dystonia in his right hand. Even though it's a full two-disc collection, and it does cover every genre that Fleisher essayed -- concerto, chamber music, solo works -- it is just a snapshot, a brief sampling of Fleisher's recorded legacy. Single movements of concertos and sonatas can leave the listener wanting to hear more. The concerto selections were all made with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra in the late '50s and early '60s, but still sound remarkably alive. The Beethoven Concerto No. 5 and Brahms Concerto No. 1 particularly show how Fleisher's combination of technical mastery and expression learned from Schnabel won over audiences. Although he was forced to change the way he physically played after losing the use of the right hand for playing piano, he also had to change the way he thought about music, which could be argued made his emotional connection to the music deeper. Only three of the tracks here are of the left-hand literature: Brahms' arrangement of the Bach Chaconne; a movement from Korngold's under-appreciated Suite for two violins, cello, and piano left hand; and one from Ravel's Concerto for left hand. The Korngold is as compelling and exciting as the Brahms concerto, recorded 30 years earlier. The placement of the selections on the set seems random, nothing is ordered by recording date or grouped by genre. Naturally the sound varies from track to track, but none of it is terrible (the Brahms' Piano Quintet with the Juilliard Quartet is the least appealing in sound, because it doesn't allow any of the instruments enough room to resonate and breathe). To get a full picture of Fleisher's career, including the regained use of his right hand in the late '90s, the Schubert Sonata, D. 960, and the Brahms' Piano Quintet here need to be compared to his 2004 Two Hands album on Vanguard/Artemis and the 2007 Deutsche Grammophon recording of the Brahms Piano Quintet with the Emerson Quartet. However, this is a good -- if all too short -- starting place to get to know Fleisher's work.

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