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Expect Delays In The Carpal Tunnel

New York
92nd Street Y
03/25/2003 -  
Antonin Dvorak: Terzetto in C
Johannes Brahms: Cello Sonata # 1, Piano Quartet # 3

Leon Fleisher (piano)
Jaime Laredo and Jennifer Koh (violins)
Michael Tree (viola)
Sharon Robinson (cello)

Some years ago I attended a memorial service for a very dear friend who, passionately dedicated to music but untrained, had late in life taken up the piano. After several had spoken of his intense love for the art, his former keyboard teacher graced us all with a small recital. For many in attendance, to remember this fellow meant to think of his love of Wagner, Strauss and Haydn, but I was amazed to meet people there who had known him professionally or socially and had no idea that he had any interest whatsoever in music. Similarly, Leon Fleisher has a long public life as a performer inextricably linked to his identity and yet, in recent years, he has emerged as a minor celebrity on an entirely different front, where his pianism is but an exotic corollary.

Mr. Fleisher has become the poster child for a technique known as rolfing, a combination of Reichian and massage therapies. Several articles of a medical nature tell of his peregrination from able-bodied, two-handed pianist through years of inability to command his right digits, struggles using conventional methods which only led to a heartbreaking failed comeback (I was in the audience at Tanglewood, thankfully only as a patron and not a critic, when he couldn’t communicate a Mozart concerto without extreme awkwardness) and, finally, the current prospect of the resurrection of dexterity and twilight years of fine performances. A certain crustiness seems to indicate that his doctors made a conscious decision to concentrate on his wrist rather than his personality, but, at the end of the day, it is only his musicianship which concerns us. In a year when Joseph Kalichstein has been busy pursuing a career as a soloist, it was intriguing to sample Fleisher again as he tackled some very difficult Brahmsian repertoire in partnership with the excellent team of Jaime Laredo and Sharon Robinson.

In the same way that Berg does in his Violin Concerto, Brahms explores both the nature and limits of his solo instrument in the opening passages of his Cello Sonata # 1. In the introduction of the main theme there is an immediate dichotomy established between the looseness and deep tessitura of the first phrase and the tautness and straining above middle C of the second. This will be an essay about contrast: warmth and comfort versus angst and tension. Sharon Robinson is about as close to the ideal cellist for this piece as is humanly possible. Her incredibly full and burnished tone sang out the opening notes magisterially, while her intense control and healthy vibrato made the antithetical echo equally moving. This rendition as a whole was marked by her suppleness of line and sense of on the edge abandon, a well thought out traversal of the bicameral (or perhaps bipolar). While it is important to praise Leon Fleisher for his heroic struggle, it would be less than honest to ignore his rather obvious problems of accuracy. His landings are often misplaced and the middle portions of his arpeggios significantly wayward. The dual nature of the piece took on a new dimension in this particular performance.

The surprise of the evening and, by far, the most satisfying section, was the delightful string trio bagatelle of Dvorak. Jaime Laredo, in addition to being the guiding hand behind all of the Y concerts, is a very well respected teacher and graciously allowed young Jennifer Koh to play the first fiddle part. We were all rewarded by her light and singing tone and her infectious musicianship (Laredo did the same on this very stage with pupil Leila Josefowicz not too long ago).

Perhaps an even greater hurdle for Mr. Fleisher to now overcome is timidity. Understandably, he is less confident than when a teenager, but for a piece like the Third Piano Quartet of Brahms, one needs to be a strong driver of the proceedings in order for the suicidal Sturm und Drang to be intensively communicated. Despite the best efforts of the string players, including Guarneri escapee Michael Tree, this reading was a bit limp, although hearing Ms. Robinson intone the opening of the third movement was paradise itself. Missing was the shade of the composer and the requisite domination of the piano, so vital to express the underlying core of youthful desperation (one of the reasons that Schoenberg orchestrated the G Minor Piano Quartet of Brahms was that, as a cellist, he wanted to tip the scales towards the strings and away from the Alpha male of the percussive piano part). This was an emotional realization, but plagued with inexactness and doubt. What Robert Haven Schauffler, in his wonderful book The Unknown Brahms, calls …the incomparable summary of the last page… was simply too meek and foursquare. If ever a touch of rubato is needed, it is here, but this pianist may be a little too uncertain to express much of his personal poetry under these current conditions of rehabilitation. Here’s wishing a speedy thorough recovery; Leon Fleisher stills has a lot to contribute to the cause.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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