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Four decades of Leon Fleisher on boxed CD set

Sony Corp.

Longtime record collectors will have previous incarnations of releases in the 23-compact disc boxed set, "Leon Fleisher: The Complete Album Collection" from Sony Classical. Ultra-serious collectors, of course, will still have the original LPs from the 1950s and '60s weighing down shelves (artwork and liner notes from those vinyl days are reproduced here on the CD sleeves).

But it's still great to have Fleisher's recorded legacy on the Columbia Masterworks/Epic and Sony Classical labels gathered in one tidy box. Make that treasure-trove.

Nineteen of the CDs in the collection are devoted to the pianist's glorious, ambidextrous years, before debilitating neurological damage struck his right hand in 1965.

Three items from the 1990s showcase his mastery of the left-hand repertoire that he focused on after that ailment. The 23rd CD captures Fleisher after successful treatment restored limited use of his right hand, playing Mozart's concertos with considerable eloquence.

(The indispensable recording documenting the pianist's restored right hand was issued on another label — the 2004 Vanguard release "Two Hands.")

Fleisher's pianistic gifts — technical control, prismatic tonal palette, intellectually and emotionally telling interpretations — emerge from the early recordings on the boxed set with fresh power.

His solo album debut from 1956, for example, finds the pianist delving deeply into Schubert's profound Sonata in B-flat. Purists can tsk about an error in the second movement ("That's a famous wrong note," Fleisher said. "I used a lousy edition."), but they would surely acknowledge that this is insightful, richly poetic music-making.

Schubert's "Wanderer" Fantasy gets an electrifying workout. Just try sitting still during the propulsive passages. On that same disc, Schubert's A major Sonata sounds a little rushed and methodical in places, yet offers lovely colors and tiny, telling tempo gradations along the way.

Fleisher serves up a wild and involving account of Liszt's B minor Sonata. Some of the pianist's tempos are insanely fast and furious, but there is no sense of showing off, just an intensifying of the score's dramatic pulse.

He also shines in the rarely encountered Sonata No. 4 by Weber, though a performance of that composer's "Invitation to the Dance" could use more sweetness and charm.

There's a great album of American repertoire not widely associated with Fleisher. He plays the heck out of sonatas by Copland and Kirchner and also brings out the vivid beauty of pieces by Sessions and Rorem.

The famed recordings of the Beethoven concertos with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra have lost none of their impact over the decades. These are visceral performances that sound natural and inevitable at every turn. Same for the two Brahms concertos; No. 1, in particular, is extraordinarily galvanizing from the get-go.

The Fleisher/Szell/Cleveland combo produces magic as well in the piano concertos of Schumann (vitality and intensity in abundance) and Grieg (lyricism that never turns sticky, many a subtle detail of dynamics and phrasing).

The left-hand recordings in the collection include Brahms' arrangement of Bach's Chaconne, which Fleisher plays with an inner beauty that speaks volumes; and bravura pieces by Blumenfeld and Godowsky delivered with as much technical dazzle as stylish nuance.

Fleisher is joined by a stellar lineup — violinists Joseph Silverstein, Jaime Laredo, Joel Smirnoff; violist Michael Tree; cellist Yo-Yo Ma — in a terrific account of Korngold's suite for piano left-hand and strings; the songful fourth movement achieves a melting lyricism.

From disc to disc, decade to decade, this collection captures a keyboard artist who, with one hand or two, can capture the essence of a score and draw listeners all the way into the experience.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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