For those of us monitoring pianist Leon Fleisher's progress since he resumed two-handed playing last spring in a performance of a Mozart concerto in Cleveland, his performances with the Theater Chamber Players Saturday evening at the Terrace Theater in the Kennedy Center was another way station on what we hope will be an unrestricted return to the glorious music-making interrupted more than 30 years ago by an injury to Fleisher's right hand.
The two pieces which Fleisher performed happened to be the only 19th-century works on the program: Schumann's "Frauenliebe und Leben" ("A Woman's Life and Love"), in which the pianist accompanied his Peabody School of Music colleague, the distinguished soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson, and Brahms' Quartet in G Minor for Piano (opus 25).
Although it is a concert hall favorite, "Frauenliebe und Leben" is not easy to put across. The eight poems are relatively short and highly intense. Moreover, poet Adelbert von Chamisso's texts are sentimental enough in their treatment of courtship, marriage and childbearing to embarrass Phyllis Schafly.
What saves these songs is the elegance of the music and an interpreter, such as Bryn-Julson, with enough style and sensitivity to chart the movement from one stage to the next and with enough feminine intensity to attend to their shades of meaning.
Fleisher played with the lid of the piano up -- a wise decision because it enabled him to hear how loud and softly he was playing and to collaborate with the singer, as the music demands, on equal terms. Much of the pianist's playing was beautiful -- never more so than in the cycle's extended postlude in which Fleisher created an atmosphere that was dream-like, delicate and precise and that penetrated to the heart of the music's bleak, desolate ending.
Fleisher's playing answered Bryn-Julson's voice, contradicted it and developed what it left unsaid. But one thing that it did not do as well as it might have was to support her voice. Bryn-Julson remains one of our great sing-er-musicians. But on this occasion, she was not in the best of voice, and Fleisher, who played with the soft pedal down much of the time, should have done more to upholster her more plushly on the occasions when she needed it.
No qualifications whatever attach to the performance of Brahms' G Minor Quartet, in which Fleisher was joined by violinist Naoko Tanaka, violist Robert Dan and cellist Evely Elsing. This pianist has always been a persuasive advocate of Brahms, and his commanding presence and playing inspired his colleagues to match his power and emotional warmth in a performance that combined conviction, spontaneity and coherence. Fleisher hit two or three potholes along the way, but the overall beauty of his pianism was never in doubt and left one eager to hear more.
Difficulties encountered en route to Washington made it impossible for this listener to hear the three opening works on the program: Laura Elise Schwendinger's "Lament" (1991) for string trio and Anton Webern's Six Bagatelles for String Quartet (1913) and String Quartet (1938).