The latest of Sony's "Complete Album Collection" box sets is devoted to Leon Fleisher: all the music he recorded for Columbia Masterworks, their subsidiary Epic Records, and most recently Sony. Fans of great pianism should snap up this bargain-priced set of 23 CDs with original cover art while it lasts. Fleisher's recording career covers a nearly 60-year span, though unfortunately with a 30-year gap between the Epic and Sony recordings due to a disability in his right hand. The gap accounts for the relative paucity of discs: 19 LPs released between 1956 and 1963, plus four CDs from 1993 to 2009. (Fleisher did record a few discs for other labels, notably Vanguard, who produced his triumphant Two Hands CD of 2004.)
A prodigy who studied with Artur Schnabel for 10 years, starting at the age of 10, Fleisher (a San Franciscan) was championed by the likes of Pierre Monteux in his youth, and formed a celebrated recording partnership with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra (8 LPs) in his early prime. After his disability he had an important career as teacher, conductor and festival administrator, and eventually as a player of piano music for the left hand (a significant repertoire because of the commissions of Paul Wittgenstein). Botox treatments in recent years allowed Fleisher to play two-handed once again: the CD of Mozart concertos that concludes the Sony set was recorded a few days before his 80th birthday.
Hearing that the reissue would follow Sony's original-covers format, reproducing CD by CD the contents of the original LPs, I initially had mixed feelings: it meant that some CDs would be short in length (e.g., Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto fills out an entire disc at only 33' 47"), and that there would be a redundant Beethoven Fourth, originally paired with Mozart's 25th in 1959, before plans were made to record the other four concertos, with Beethoven's Second as a pairing two years later. But the bargain price makes the set a good deal anyhow, and once it arrived I found it pleasing in many ways. First, it is nice to have the cover art and even — if you have excellent eyesight or a magnifying glass — the complete LP back-cover notes on each sleeve. (The four CDs from 1993 to 2009, however, lack whatever booklet essays they might have had.) And some of the original LPs did have a lot of music compressed in their grooves: e.g. The Beethoven 4th / Mozart 25th disc times out at 62' 38".
Plus the format means that we get a few bonuses
of music not performed by Fleisher. Have you ever wanted to hear Szell/Cleveland
play Delius? A dreamy, delicate Prelude to
Irmelin fills out the Rachmaninoff/Franck LP. We also get Hindemith's
Five Pieces for Strings and Funeral
Music for Viola and Strings as well as Fleisher's contribution that
LP, The Four Temperaments for
piano and strings; and an absolutely superlative Schubert The
Shepherd on the Rock with Rudolf Serkin, Benita Valente and Harold
Wright, originally paired with a Marlboro Festival performance of Brahms' Liebeslieder
Waltzes, Op. 33, with Fleisher and Serkin as duo pianists. Schubert's
12-minute mini-drama with all its yearning, regret and rapture is performed —
really sung — gloriously by the Boston Symphony clarinetist as well as the
soprano and paced expertly by Serkin. Incidentally, Serkin and Fleisher must
have inspired Valente and the other three singers in the Brahms as well: their
performance of the 12 brief waltzes is energized and full of dramatic contrast,
a perfect antidote for listeners who usually find this music too cloying.
Others have written in great detail and with
great professional knowledge about many of the performances on these discs, and
I can hardly cover all 23 discs in one review. The complete Beethoven and Brahms
concertos with Szell/Cleveland are universally admired and should be richly
rewarding to anyone hearing them for the first time: for many listeners, these
recordings strike an ideal balance between Classical reserve and Romantic
passion — order and impulse — absolute control and bristling excitement.
Fleisher fans will find other old favorites in this set: notably his Brahms Variations
and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, which he seems to have been born to
play, or which Brahms seems to have written knowing there would one day be a
Fleisher to play it. The crispness, brio, energy, flawless technique all make
this a classic performance. I was also very glad to rediscover the Hindemith Four
Temperaments (best known today as the music for a George Balanchine
ballet of that title): after the moderately paced opening for strings, the piano's
allegro outburst is exhilarating in Fleisher's rendering, and his way with the
¾-time trill-filled tune that follows is utterly compelling.
But there will be discoveries for anyone dipping into the boxed set. Fleisher and Szell's remarkable Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (in mono) is the driest, propulsive, I would almost say Stravinskian version I've ever heard. Jed Distler's booklet essay contains a wonderful anecdote about the recording of this work: "According to Fleisher, the Rhapsody was set down in one take, and when it came time for the 18th variation's famous big tune, Szell apparently mouthed to his players ‘like the Philadelphia Orchestra!' in order to evoke that ensemble's patented lush string sonorities." (I daresay nobody will think "Philadelphia" when hearing this performance, though it's certainly a "big" statement.) Incidentally, Distler's well-written essay, with biographical detail and commentary on Fleisher's pianistic style, is another plus for this set, though I noticed a contradiction between his dating of the Hindemith recording and the date on another page.
I also greatly liked the Debussy/Ravel disc, where you will hear the most unsentimental but still engaging "Clair de lune" imaginable. The Liszt Sonata in B Minor is not the most soulful or demonic performance ever recorded, but the evenness and brilliance of Fleisher's finger work are thrilling. (He certainly doesn't dawdle: the recording clocks in at about 28.5 minutes.) The Liszt disc comes with a welcome rarity: the Fourth Sonata, in E Minor, of Carl Maria von Weber, a 24-minute work full of charm and grace.
Fleisher played contemporary music but recorded
little of it, so it is especially good to have his 1963 disc of solo piano music
by four major American composers: Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, Leon Kirchner,
and Ned Rorem. Fleisher's linear style and crispness of attack seem particularly
suited for the Copland Sonata's nervous, spiky scherzo and glacial Andante
sostenuto finale, but really the whole disc is rewarding to hear.
Another disc with unusual repertoire is the solo left-hand recital recorded in
1991, including a Toccata and Fugue by JenoTakacs (a Hungarian who studied with
Paul Wittgenstein) and Chacony,
written for Fleisher in 1988 by the British Robert Saxton. (I needed to find
these background facts via the Internet, since Sony doesn't give us the original
booklet essays.) Of the older music on this disc I enjoyed in particular a set
of Etudes by Saint-Saens, pieces that fit Fleisher's analytic style very well.
One other disc of rarities pairs chamber music by two Viennese composers,
Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Franz Schmidt. The Korngold five-movement Suite,
with Fleisher joined by violinists Joseph Silverstein and Jaime Laredo and
cellist Yo-Yo Ma, is an odd but fascinating work of 1930, falling in between the
Richard-Straussian operas of Korngold's youth and his career in Hollywood.
A CD of left-hand piano works with Seiji Ozawa
and the Boston Symphony has a disappointing Ravel Concerto that fails to crackle
with tension, despite some outstanding wind solos, but it also contains an
outstanding Prokofiev Fourth Concerto, with both dash and soaring lyricism when
the music calls for one or another. A bonus here is Britten's Diversions
on a Theme, a set of variations that is rarely performed but exciting
to hear. Finally, the recent Mozart CD features an outstanding Concerto No. 12
and a delightful No. 7, the concerto Mozart wrote originally for three pianos
and then arranged it for two: here Fleisher is joined by his wife, Katherine
As for the sound of these discs, I haven't made comparisons with the original LPs or with various earlier CD transfers, of which there are quite a few. But I can say that although the sound is clean and clear on most of the discs made from the LPs (there is some distortion in the Rachmaninoff), there is still a degree of constriction or boxiness; I've heard Sony remasterings of Vladimir Horowitz RCA recordings from the 1950s that capture a much richer piano sound. Things improve by 1961: both piano and orchestra sound much better in the four Beethoven Piano Concertos recorded that year than in the one from 1959, where the sound is relatively muffled (oddly, more so in the disc pairing the Fourth with the Beethoven Second than the one pairing it with the Mozart 25th). The CDs from the 1990s do not have especially distinguished sound: e.g. In the Korngold / Schmidt chamber disc (recorded 1991 / 1993 but released only in 1998) both piano and strings have a bit of a harsh edge, and the Ozawa/Boston disc is far from state-of-the-art. But both piano and orchestra on the 2009 Mozart disc have full, warm presence.
Recording Quality: to (disc 23 is )
DISC 1 Schubert: Sonata in B-Flat Major;
Schubert: Ländler, Op. 171
Leon Fleisher, piano; with George Szell conducting the
Cleveland Orchestra (Discs 2, 5, 10, 12-16); Szymon Goldberg conducting the
Netherlands Chamber Orchestra (Disc 4); Rudolf Serkin, piano, Harold Wright,
clarinet, Benita Valente, soprano, other vocalists (Disc 11); Julliard String
Quartet (Disc 17); Seiji Ozawa conducting the Boston Symphony (Disc 21); Joseph
Silverstein, Yo-Yo Ma and other string soloists (Disc 22); Katherine Jacobson
Fleisher, piano, Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra (Disc 23)