Leon Fleisher: there's much more to the US pianist's career than tragedy

Martin Kettle
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: AP</span>
Photograph: AP

Some may be tempted to describe the career of Leon Fleisher, the American concert pianist who died in Baltimore this week aged 92, as a deeply poignant one, and even as a tragedy. But that would be a huge misreading of his story.

Even so, there was indeed a tragic dimension to Fleisher’s long life. A child prodigy pianist and a pupil of one of the greatest of all keyboard masters, Fleisher had already climbed to the international pianistic heights when, in 1964, he found that the fourth and fifth fingers of his right hand were involuntarily curling up.

Within months, Fleisher had effectively lost the use of the hand. He was 36. It was diagnosed as focal dystonia, which he later attributed to over-practising. What followed, over more than five decades, was a tortuous and troubled personal journey from darkness towards a new kind of light. There were innumerable false dawns in his career along the way. But in the early years of this century, a combination of guts and injections of botulinum toxin produced the return and rediscovery of a very special artist, who re-entered the concert hall and the recording studio to play music he thought he had lost the ability to play.

The &#x002018;Obi-Wan Kenobi&#x002019; of piano &#x002026; Leon Fleisher in his studio at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore in 2014.
The ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’ of piano … Fleisher in his studio at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore in 2014. Photograph: Washington Post/Getty Images

It sounds like a feelgood movie script. Indeed, there is a 2006 documentary about it, Two Hands: the Leon Fleisher Story, which won Oscar and Emmy nominations. The echoes of the 1996 movie Shine, about the Australian pianist David Helfgott’s struggles with mental health problems are also strong.

Wonderful though this return was, it would do a disservice to Fleisher to remember him solely in this way. Fleisher’s rise to sustained fame, well before the hand problem, ought to be formidable evidence of that. So should his many recordings before the start of his long eclipse in 1964. And so, possibly more than anything, should his long legacy as a teacher, mostly at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where his students nicknamed him “the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the piano”.

The teaching Fleisher received as a young prodigy and has now passed on to others – including the outstanding Chinese pianist Yuja Wang – were umbilically linked. When Fleisher was a nine-year-old in San Francisco, the conductors Pierre Monteux (who conducted the notorious world premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring) and Alfred Hertz persuaded the revered pianist Artur Schnabel to take him as a pupil. Fleisher remained his pupil for the next 10 years, imbibing a pedagogy that was as much philosophical as purely pianistic. Schnabel’s insistence on the primacy of the score and the intellectual seriousness of his approach remained hallmarks of Fleisher’s own teaching.

Those hallmarks are also everywhere in Fleisher’s own recordings. He was one of a generation of American pianists – including Van Cliburn, Gary Graffman, Byron Janis and Julius Katchen – whose careers burgeoned alongside the arrival of the LP and the stereo recording. Fleisher’s have stood the test of time as well as any of them. This is especially true of his incisive playing of Brahms, preserved in his recordings of the concertos with the exacting conductor George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. Above all it is true of Fleisher’s 1956 classic recording of Brahms’s Handel Variations.

Related: Leon Fleisher, US pianist who lost use of his right hand, dies aged 92

There would be other important recordings to come, even during Fleisher’s times of trouble. These included several discs of the left-hand repertoire, including what was billed as the world’s first recording of Hindemith’s exceptionally difficult 1923 composition Klaviermusik mit Orchester for left hand. After his return, Fleisher also rerecorded a few pieces he had recorded in his 30s, including the Brahms piano quintet. The two discs that told the world that Fleisher was back also have special potency and presence: Four Hands (2004) and The Journey (2006). So, in particular, does All the Things You Are (2014), an absorbing mix of left-hand and two-hands pieces, of which Alex Ross in the New Yorker wrote: “At the age of 86, [Fleisher] remains a musician of magisterial powers.”

Back in the 1930s, Monteux called Fleisher “the pianistic find of the century”. Fleisher’s remarkable story has ensured that, for many, he is the pianistic find of this century, too.