When the programme for this year's Aldeburgh festival was announced, the thing that had me most excited by far was the appearance, indeed multiple appearances, by American pianist Leon Fleisher. He has had a remarkable life story. In the late 50s and early 60s he was among the foremost concert pianists of his generation, making a number of outstanding recordings, many the result of an impressive partnership with Georg Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, including the Brahms and Beethoven concerti. Sadly, in the mid 60s he lost the use of his right hand due to dystonia, which for the most part ended his career as a concert pianist, save for the performance of various works for left hand.
Flash forward several decades, and Botox injections gave him back the use of his right hand and in 2004 he recorded his first two handed album for four decades. Now in his early 80s, his visit to Aldeburgh is both a coup and a real treat.
He had chosen a programme of Bach solo works followed by a Brahms quintet. Bach is clearly important to Fleisher: his most recent solo recording, The Journey, is almost entirely Bach and his album Two Hands opens with two pieces, including Egon Petri's arrangement of BWV 208 Sheep May Safely Graze, and it was with this that he began the concert. It's a beautiful work and one close to being a desert island disc for me. Fleisher's approach to Bach on the piano is not the more mechanical one that I often find most effective, instead it is intensely poetic and richly coloured. His reading was sublime.
As might be expect from a pianist who has played with his left hand for decades, but only regained his right recently, his left is much stronger, more assured. This came across especially in Capriccio in B flat BWV 992. There also seemed to be a few wrong notes here. However, as with Alfred Brendel in his final years, the poetry was ample compensation for any lack of assurance. That said, he was still able to bring an impressive display of technical dexterity to the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor, BWV 903, which at times seemed fearsomely complex. Even the feedback from someone's hearing aide couldn't spoil it.
Perhaps most interesting was the piece with which Fleisher ended the first half: Bach's Chaconne for Left Hand (from partita BWV 1004). It was an arrangement by Brahms, providing a link into the second half. There is, of course, a fairly rich repertoire for left hand piano, not least because of works such as Ravel's concerto, commissioned for Paul Wittgenstein who had lost his arm in the first world war. Indeed, one consequence of his condition is that Fleisher himself has added to this by commissioning works. The Bach/Brahms showed most clearly the greater strength of his left hand. It's interesting watching pianists play such pieces: often they seem in desperate battle with themselves to keep their right hand still. For the most part, perhaps because for so long he couldn't use it, Fleisher seemed more relaxed, his hand resting easily in his lap, only occasionally did it move up to grip the side of the piano. It was an interesting piece and he gave a compelling performance.
Fleisher had an easy manner, almost slumped in his seat, a regular chair rather than a piano stool. Yet despite his unassuming attitude he had a commanding presence, waiting for complete silence before beginning and controlling the applause, hovering his hands over the keyboard at the close of each piece ensuring a little silence at the end.
After the interval he was joined by the relatively young Signum quartet for Brahms' Piano Quintet in F minor, op.34, a work he has recently recorded with the Emerson Quartet. It was simply stunning and they played it with an incredible intensity. The ensemble and Fleisher blended very well, seeming completely in unison with their interpretation, something not always the case with such scratch groups. The quartet themselves proved an extremely tight ensemble, they also seemed able to play with one voice rather than four, something that always marks out my favourite chamber groups. The slow movement was beautiful, but it was the climaxes of the first and third movements that were especially thrilling. Earlier in the day we had seen a film showing how some music could make blood flow to the brain more than others, certainly their performance of the Brahms fell into the former category.
Fleisher is a remarkable artist and I'm glad to have had the chance to hear him. Hopefully this won't be my last.