Review: Leon Fleisher & Katherine Jacobson

Jan. 28, Virginia Commonwealth University

Leon Fleisher, who by his reckoning has been playing Steinway pianos for 84½ of his 89½ years, gave a new Steinway D its public christening before a near-full house at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Singleton Arts Center. He did so playing some pieces closely associated with the ups and downs of his long career, as well as some repertory that some listeners might not expect to hear from him.

Fleisher, the last prominent surviving pupil of Artur Schnabel, spent much of his early career concentrating on the Austro-German classical-to-romantic composers – Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms – whom Schnabel prominently advocated. In 1964, Fleisher was stricken with the neurological malady called focal dystonia, which robbed him of the ability to play with his right hand; he turned to the left-hand repertory (largely of modern vintage) and devoted most of his time to teaching and conducting. In the 1990s, following a then-new treatment for focal dystonia, he resumed performing with both hands.

In this concert, part of a 90th-birthday tour (he turns 90 on July 23), Fleisher began with sets of familiar short works by Bach, Debussy and Chopin, followed by one of the first great left-hand pieces, Brahms’ piano transcription of Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita in D minor, BWV 1004, for solo violin.

In the second half of the program, Fleisher played secondo to the primo Katherine Jacobson, of his wife and performing partner, in Schubert’s Fantasie in F minor, D. 940, and Ravel’s “La Valse.”

In the two-handed sets, Fleisher adopted measured tempos that allowed plenty of space for tone coloration and emphasis on dynamic contrasts – the latter aspect especially effective in “La puerta del Vino” from Debussy’s second book of Préludes and Chopin’s Mazurka in C sharp minor, Op. 50, No. 3.

The pianist’s slow-but-steady pacing added depth to Chopin’s Nocturne in D flat major, Op. 27, No. 2, and “Clair de lune” from Debussy’s “Suite bergamasque,” and gave Egon Petri’s arrangement of Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze” an unusually meditative affect.

The most familiar characteristics of Fleisher’s early playing – textual rigor, rhythmic and tonal precision, sharply etched phrasing – came through in his performance of Brahms’ Bach transcription, exposing both the dance roots of the piece and the prayerful qualities of Bach’s variations on the theme without emphasizing either, concentrating instead on the musical arc of the piece and letting its spiritual import land on the listener without “interpretive” assistance.

He took a similar approach in playing the bass lines of the Schubert and Ravel pieces while Jacobsen played the top melodic lines and the bulk of the musical ornamentation.

The two pianists gave a stirring and moody reading of the Schubert, doing their best to contour its overly lengthy and emphatic scherzo section. Their treatment of “La Valse” was rather metrical and curiously salon-like, almost pretty, with the music’s violent undercurrents underplayed.

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