Leon Fleisher shines at Ravinia with a little help from his friends

Fri Jul 03, 2009 at 3:14 pm

By Dennis Polkow

Leon Fleisher performed in a chamber program Thursday night at Ravinia. Photo: Eli Turner

Leon Fleisher is an enigma in music circles. The only child prodigy ever taught by the legendary Artur Schnabel, Fleisher’s early career and recordings were a tour de force of power pianism until one by one, the fingers of his right hand began curling and not functioning, the worst nightmare of any pianist. 

Not one to give up, Fleisher began performing the small body of repertoire for the left hand alone, along with conducting and teaching. Return of the use of his right hand was slow in coming, and there were many unsuccessful “comeback” events to two-handed repertoire. 

Fleisher wisely learned to keep announcements and expectations at bay, but kept on with holistic healing treatments, which in recent years have allowed him to selectively record and perform two-handed repertoire, much of that in chamber music settings. 

Thursday evening’s Ravinia chamber concert was billed as “Leon Fleisher and Friends,” with Fleisher taking part in the Brahms Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major with violinist Miriam Fried and Swedish cellist Frans Helmerson. 

For those of us who have followed Fleisher over the years, watching the stooped, 81-year-old pianist slowly emerge, with white beard and salt and pepper hair, sporting a  black patterned  Chinese tunic, it was difficult to know what to expect. 

 Once Fleisher sat down and began to play, however, the musical spell he cast was extraordinary.  This was not the kind of cohesive ensemble performance that one would expect from say, the Beaux Arts Trio, but Fleisher’s playing was so restrained, so joyous, that details of this work emerged in sharp relief that might otherwise go unnoticed. 

 Fleisher seemed to be particularly enjoying himself during the Scherzo movement, which he made devilishly playful and during which he was consistently mouthing its theme, his entire body pulsating in rhythm.  His collaborators joined into the spirit of the proceedings, obviously recognizing what a unique performance opportunity this was, although Fried allowed herself to go slightly over the top dynamically in climactic sections and had some intonation issues in the upper register.          

 The anniversaries of Haydn and Mendelssohn were noted in the other two Fleisher-less pieces of the evening. Haydn’s String Quartet in D Major, Op. 71, No. 2,  was played slowly and with lots of syrupy-sweet vibrato by Fried and Helmerson joined by violinist Donald Weilerstein (taking the first violin role) and violist Kim Kashkashian. In Mendelssohn’s String Quintet No. 2 in B-flat Major, Fried, director of the Steans Institute’s program for piano and strings, took the role of first violinist. The group, augmented by her husband, violist Paul Biss, made an eloquent case for a still-neglected masterpiece.

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