The first notes of Bach's familiar Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring emerge from the opening track of Leon Fleisher's new CD like the soft, reassuring light of dawn, and the warmth continues to spread for about 75 minutes' worth of exceptional music-making. Call it historic, too.
Leon Fleisher: Two Hands (Vanguard Classics/Artemis), released today, marks the brilliant American pianist's first two-hand solo recording since 1964, when the neurological disorder dystonia effectively ended the full use of his right hand.
Although Fleisher re-channeled his energies to left-hand repertoire (and conducting) after the ailment, he never gave up on the idea of returning to the keyboard with both hands swinging. Periodic efforts in that direction proved promising, but remained short of his previous level. Then, a few years ago, infusions of a decidedly unexpected agent, Botox, generated much more flexibility and power in his right hand.
This has enabled the longtime Baltimore resident and Peabody Institute faculty member to test the waters with renewed confidence and success. Last fall, for example, he gave an ecstatically received recital at Carnegie Hall. In May, he delivered a bold account of Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Concert Artists of Baltimore.
And now, a few weeks after turning 76, Fleisher's new recording documents the current state of his two-handed art with gratifying clarity and depth.
Supremely elegant accounts of two Bach transcriptions - the one of Jesu by Myra Hess, and Egon Petri's treatment of Sheep May Safely Graze - reveal, above all, the pianist's command of tone and style. Same for his refined account of a Scarlatti sonata, delivered at a gentle pace and with a wonderful variety of shading. Debussy's well-worn Clair de lune works its magic freshly and easily.
Fleisher enriches Chopin's Mazurka in C-sharp minor, Op. 50, No. 3, through his superb sense of rhythmic elasticity, his abundant palette of aural colors. In the same composer's darkly beautiful Nocturne in D-flat major, the right hand limns the melody with a keen ear for the full range of emotions imbedded there.
The big item here is Schubert's B-flat major Sonata, D. 960. Fleisher masterfully captures the tense balance of lyricism and longing in the first movements; maintains a clear, singing line in the second; dances fleetly through the Scherzo; provides plenty of propulsion in the finale.
Throughout the sonata - and the whole disc - it's not just the technical smoothness that impresses, but the totally alive character of the playing and the unmistakable, uplifting sound of a reinvigorated keyboard master's golden artistic insight.