Vanguard Classics' Leon Fleisher: The Journey isn't a typical classical piano recital disc. Concert pianist Leon Fleisher had only been enjoying use of both hands for a decade as the right hand clenched up due to focal dystonia in 1964 and stayed that way for 30 years. That Fleisher was able to play is in itself a miracle, and he didn't take it for granted, as much of his touring during that time had been devoted to raising awareness about focal dystopia, along with money to research its cure -- about $80 million worth of funds.
In short, the focus of Leon Fleisher: The Journey is something that goes well beyond mere music-making, and Vanguard Classics has wisely taken note of this and added a second disc containing an interview, drawn from XM Satellite Radio, with Fleisher conducted by former NPR "Morning Edition" host Bob Edwards. It is a touching and deeply felt interview where Fleisher shares his insights on these pieces, which are of considerable depth and wrought from many years of hard-won experience. This is useful in placing the musical portion of the program in context, as the performances there are a little less than ideal in some ways. Fleisher is slow and deliberate in some movements, not due to infirmity, but to his interpretive stance -- the Adagio of Mozart's Sonata in E flat, K. 282, is "adagio" indeed, clocking in at nearly eight minutes (the average is just over seven). He is unable to sound out the center voice with his right thumb in the Rondoletto of the Stravinsky Serenade in A quite the way one is used to, and -- not Fleisher's fault -- the pauses in between movements in the Johann Sebastian Bach Capriccio on the Departure of a Brother seem a tad long. Nonetheless, we are not judging a piano competition here, but learning from a master -- listen to how warm and inviting Fleisher's Chopin Berceuse in D flat, Op. 57, is, or how emotional and unapologetically narrative his rendering of the Bach Capriccio is. While Glenn Gould, a pianist of Fleisher's generation, may have persuaded us to embrace the cold and efficient in music, Fleisher, in the wake of his long journey, is attempting to bring us back into the warmth and the light.
Fleisher admits on the interview disc that despite his recovery, his days of playing the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 are over. Nevertheless, Fleisher still has a lot to offer in terms of majesty, mastery, and sheer beauty of expression, and Vanguard Classics has done well to capture it in its essence in The Journey.