Everything music lovers have long admired about pianist Leon Fleisher — penetrating intellect, technical authority, uncommon expressive power — are reconfirmed on "All the Things You Are," a thoroughly engrossing CD from Bridge Records devoted primarily to music for left hand alone.
It's a great reminder that this octogenarian can communicate more with five fingers than many a younger pianist does with 10.
Fleisher lost the use of his right hand in 1965, six years after he joined the Peabody Conservatory faculty, due to what was eventually diagnosed as focal dystonia. He then devoted his attentions to left-hand repertoire and conducting.
Advances in treatment have allowed him to resume some two-hand playing during the past couple of decades or so, and he has certainly achieved some unforgettable results when doing so. The 2004 Vanguard Classics CD "Leon Fleisher: Two Hands" preserves heartwarming evidence of that.
You don't just feel admiration when you hear Fleisher make music, whether with one hand or two; you feel gratitude.
This uncommon keyboard artist, who turned 86 a few months ago, couldn't be more compelling than he is on the new Bridge release, recorded at Curtis Institute in Philadelphia over the course of a few days in August 2013 and a couple more in January 2014. The choice of music is as inspired as the playing. (The choice of CD cover photo is less felicitous.)
Brahms' left-hand arrangement of Bach's profound Chaconne shares the disc with more recent material, including works written for Fleisher by eminent American composers George Perle and Leon Kirchner. More surprisingly, perhaps, there are also left-hand versions of classics from the Great American Songbook in the mix.
Fleisher brings to all the pieces the same clarity of line and sensitivity of phrase, while also giving each its own distinctive character.
The Chaconne is masterfully shaped, and becomes all the more effective for being so intimate, almost conversational, in approach — an approach that holds true for the whole disc.
Kirchner's "L.H." from 1995, which takes some of its inspiration from poetry by Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, sends melodic lines spinning in alternately dynamic and reflective fashion to create a moody portrait in sound. The warmth of Fleisher's playing makes the notes sing.
Perle's angular "Musical Offerings," a gift for Fleisher's 70th birthday, gets a tense, absorbing account that reveals subtle nuance at every atonal turn. Subtlety is also in rich supply as Fleisher sculpts the eloquent left-hand Prelude No. 6 by the 20th-century Spanish composer Federico Mompou.
The single two-hand piece on the album is from 2000, Dina Koston's "Thoughts of Evelyn," written in memory of the pianist Evelyn Swarthout Hayes, wife of Washington Performing Arts founder Patrick Hayes. Fleisher brings out the tenderness of the short work tellingly.
As for the pop song arrangements, Fleisher, as you would expect, treats those as the equals of Bach, Kirchner and the rest.
The pianist shines in Earl Wild's sumptuous version of George Gershwin's "The Man I Love" and casts quite a spell with Stephen Prutsman's darkly beautiful treatment of Jerome Kern's "All the Things You Are." Fleisher's sophisticated styling here provides one more reason to celebrate this latest entry in his large, invaluable discography.
Another disc showcasing a Peabody Conservatory faculty artist — the exceptional flutist Marina Piccinini — is well worth checking out. "Tre Voci," just released on the ECM New Series label, is a study in evocative atmosphere, focusing on pieces for the often ethereal combination of flute, viola and harp.
The benchmark for that combination is Debussy's Sonata, an autumnal masterwork from 1915 delivered with finely measured doses of eloquence, sensuality and gentle fire by Piccinini, violist Kim Kashkashian and harpist Sivan Magen.
That Debussy score inspired Toru Takemitsu's 1992 piece "And then I knew 'twas Wind," which creates a kind of musical mist that the three players penetrate with superb articulation and exquisite expression.
Same for Sofia Gubaidulina's "Garden of Joys and Sorrows" from 1980, which makes a wide variety of technical demands met handsomely by the instrumentalists as they conjure up a world of richly poetic imagery.