With new box set, pianist Leon Fleisher celebrates the sounds of a lifetime

With new box set, pianist Leon Fleisher celebrates the sounds of a lifetime
Leon Fleisher, pianist and Peabody faculty member who remains a major musical force at 85. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun)

On an upper floor of the Peabody Conservatory the other day, the sound of a piano played by a single hand could be heard coming from Leon Fleisher's studio. Even through the closed, thick door, there was no mistaking the authority behind that sound.

Fleisher, who turned 85 on July 23, remains one of the most compelling pianists in the world, whether playing with one hand or two — only for the past dozen or so years, thanks to Botox injections, has he enjoyed limited reuse of his right hand, immobilized nearly five decades ago because of focal dystonia.


Inside his studio at the conservatory, Fleisher talked about his health, his career and future plans.

"My right hand is getting tired," he said. "But I'm doing fine — knock on wood. I'm still ambulatory. I'm just waiting until the battery runs out," he added with a laugh.

It's hard to imagine that battery will ever lose its charge.

To mark Fleisher's birthday milestone, Sony Classical has just issued a 23-compact disc set of his recordings released between 1956 and 2009, an impressive testament to his productivity.

So far this summer, the pianist has traveled to Taiwan, Japan and China for concerts, in addition to performing with the Boston and Chicago symphonies at their summer festival locations. And he spent several weeks mentoring young musicians at the venerable Marlboro Festival in Vermont.

"That was a great pleasure," Fleisher said. "I remember having some of the same questions and challenges that they have now. It's great to be able to suggest not answers, but possibilities. The main job of a teacher is not to teach how loud or soft, fast or slow something should go, but how to learn — what things you need to look for in order to make your decisions."

The coming season is packed with more teaching. Fleisher will be working with piano students at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, the Royal Conservatory in Toronto and, of course, Peabody, where he has been a fixture since 1959.

"People change here with a certain regularity, which keeps me fresh — and, I hope, them," he said.

A Kennedy Center Honors recipient in 2007 and author (with Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette) of "My Nine Lives: A Memoir of Many Careers in Music" in 2010, Fleisher seems to thrive on a packed schedule.

Fleisher, who added conducting to his skill set in the years after his right-hand trouble began, will be on the podium several times this fall. He will lead the Peabody Symphony Orchestra, as well as the famed Cleveland Orchestra, where he has been designated artist-in-residence.

An October engagement with the Naples (Fla.) Philharmonic will find Fleisher performing a Mozart concerto for two pianos with his wife, Katherine Jacobson Fleisher. He will also conduct that program, which includes the premiere of a work by Katherine's nephew, Nicholas Jacobson-Larson, written for four harps and orchestra. The four harpists will be three of Fleisher's children and his daughter-in-law.

"That's nepotism to the nth degree," Fleisher said, "a true family affair."

As for this month, Fleisher has been busy preserving some of his music-making for Bridge Records. He is recording pieces for left-hand-alone written for Fleisher over the years by such notable American composers as Lukas Foss and George Perle.

The recording will include a novel item. "It's my first crossover piece," the pianist said, as he started playing, with exquisite nuance, the great Jerome Kern song "All the Things You Are" in an elegant left-hand arrangement by a former Peabody student of Fleisher's, Stephen Prutsman.


While awaiting that new recording, the pianist's fans can dig back into a hefty portion of his past on the Sony boxed set. More than 19 hours and a lifetime of musical wisdom are packed into "Leon Fleisher: The Complete Album Collection."

Given that record companies often put out such collections to commemorate late, lamented artists, Fleisher wasn't sure how to view this one at first.

"Sony never told me about the box set," he said, "so I had quite a scare a few weeks ago when I saw it. What do they know that I don't know?"

Fleisher, whose dry wit is as well-known as his brilliant pianism, broke into a little grin. He is the first to pull someone's leg or poke fun at himself, as he does with perfect deadpan on a recently posted YouTube video, part of the quirky "Conversations with Nick Canellakis" created by a droll young cellist of that name.

The interview starts off with Fleisher closing his eyes — "I can hold a conversation while I'm sleeping; that's how I often teach" — and goes on tongue-in-cheek tangents from there. The pianist claims that he gets his "best work done on the toilet," for example, and that he has X-ray vision in his right eye (he uses Canellakis for an embarrassing demonstration).

This fun side of Fleisher — "I defer to nobody in the amount of foolishness I float out there," he said — is prized by his students. One of them is Michael Sheppard, a gifted Baltimore-based pianist who did graduate studies with Fleisher at Peabody.

"He can say the most profound things one moment and tell great off-color jokes the next," Sheppard said. "He is in his own orbit. He is so intent and serious about the music that he can seem hard to approach, but when you talk to him, he shoots the [breeze] just like a human."

Fleisher might be a regular guy in many ways, but he's got a musical pedigree that is anything but ordinary.

The San Francisco-born pianist did his most important studies, starting at age 9 and lasting a decade, with the keyboard giant Artur Schnabel, who studied with Theodor Leschetizky, who studied with Carl Czerny, who studied with Beethoven.

"Schnabel took things way beyond playing an instrument," Fleisher said of his teacher. "He was getting into the heart and soul of these composers. It was hard to distinguish between Mozart and Schnabel, Beethoven and Schnabel, Brahms and Schnabel."

The tutoring from Schnabel ended abruptly.

"He kicked me out," Fleisher said. "He told me, 'You have to find your own answers.' That led to a few years with a profound sense of being in the middle of the ocean without a life raft."

But the blossoming pianist found his way to shore and a fruitful collaboration with conductor George Szell, the towering conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra.

Beginning in 1956 and lasting into the early '60s, Fleisher recorded several major works for piano and orchestra with Szell and the Clevelanders; the results form an integral portion of the box of Sony reissues.

The best-known of these collaborations are the piano concertos of Beethoven and Brahms, widely considered benchmarks to this day. The recordings of the five Beethoven concertos were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2008.

The rapport between Fleisher and Szell on all of the discs they made together is palpable.


"To this day, I haven't quite figured out why it was that we had that musical relationship," the pianist said. "Szell adored Schnabel, so maybe there was something filial or avuncular about it. We never had a musical disagreement, which is something you can rarely, rarely say."

They did have a disagreement over priorities at one point.

One week in March 1963, Fleisher was to perform a Beethoven concerto with the New York Philharmonic when Szell was guest conductor. The pianist had another gig — recording the Brahms F minor Piano Quintet with the Juilliard String Quartet — the day before his Philharmonic rehearsal.

"I got to rehearsal in the morning and foolishly told him, rather proudly, that I had been recording Brahms until 1 a.m.," Fleisher said. "I felt fine, but he was furious. He said, 'When you play with me and the New York Philharmonic, you do nothing else that week.' If you agreed to make music with Szell, it was understood that you would adhere to his high standards."

Fleisher, who talks about such incidents as if they happened yesterday, has a little joke in mind to play on the Cleveland Orchestra when he arrives to conduct the ensemble in December.

"I wanted to get a mask of George and come out onstage wearing it, but there's no one left in the orchestra who would remember what he looked like," the pianist said with a laugh.

Fleisher's own grizzled, bearded face has long suggested that of a sage — "Back in the day, they called him the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the piano," Sheppard said — and he has the insights to back it up.

As someone who gave his first public performance in 1936 and started teaching 54 years ago, Fleisher has considered just about every note, every chord, every angle of the core piano repertoire. And he has something wise to say about all of it.

"He has a number of what I would affectionately call canned speeches," said Sheppard, who now repeats them to his own students. "One is about how music is our way of defying gravity, how it's more physics than math."

Another familiar Fleisher refrain over the years has to do with technique versus interpretation.

"There are players who can do acrobatics — play fast octaves and stuff like that," he said. "But the ability to delve behind the notes is something else. All the notes are equally black. We have to determine what shades of gray to use, and why. To do something capricious usually doesn't sound that convincing. It doesn't have the quality of inevitability that a great performance has."

That quality precisely defines the artistry of Leon Fleisher.