Forget the hand, Leon Fleisher was concerned with your mind

Chicago pianist Lori Kaufman shares her experience of what made Leon Fleisher the most influential piano thinker of our time:

In the assortment of obituaries published online and in print this week, writers spent most of their time describing a pianist who overcame the devastating difficulty of losing the ability to play with his right hand, and the treatments he endured to remedy, and ultimately, transcend that. But what most cannot define is the massive contribution Leon Fleisher made to piano playing, and why he should be remembered as a two-handed pianist, far more than as a one-handed humanist. Yes, he reinvented himself in the most poetic way possible, yes his life story is a formidable example of human triumph, but we cannot forget what he accomplished IN ADDITION to all of that. The impact he had on almost a century of pianists everywhere was universal and indelible, but what makes his departure such a hole too big ever to fill?

In all discussions of Leon Fleisher the teacher, there is a certain mystery and surrounding just what made him so revered by his students. Nobody outside of Room 413 at Peabody really knows what happened inside of Room 413 (now renamed Room 411C). The myths (he will talk about the cosmos!) and inaccuracies (he is not warm with his students!) went around and around so when you first show up, you have no idea of what to expect and are even shocked that he remembers you from the audition.

Most of what people think they know about Mr Fleisher is either wrong or cannot be easily explained. The way I used to analyze it, is that most teachers give you the finishing touches on a piece, they clean it up and spit on a rag and polish it to a sheen so you can put it in your pocket and on your list of rep. Leon, however, did not give you the finishing touches, he gave you the beginning touches. He got you to stop playing and start thinking, thinking about how to approach the piece from the inside out. A recalcitrant Jew, Mr Fleisher was always delighted by any kabbalistic reference so I will mention one that we spoke about: The first book of Genesis is usually translated as “In the beginning…” but the Hebrew word B’reishit actually means something like “In the midst of the beginningness of the beginning times before time had even started..” and that mystical beginningness was exactly the place where Leon the musician spent his life, and exactly the exercise that Fleisher the teacher demanded of his disciples.

What was the composer thinking as he methodically put these enigmatic dots on paper, what was the direction, weight, texture, energy, impetus, color, of each note, where was the note going, what had this note seen, who had this note loved and lost, what would give this note its ultimate redemption, what was the space between each beat, how must we give the impression of elongating that space, or contracting that space, or bridging that space, or multiplying that space, endlessly stretching a silken thread from the first note to the last, creating world upon world until, as in Genesis, finally, And There Was Light and God said It Was Good, so that one’s entire performance felt to the audience like each hair on their heads were being pulled, inexorably, (one of his favorite words) toward the stage.

One of the most misunderstood rumors about Mr Fleisher is that he never demonstrated while teaching. Yes, he had two old battered Steinways alongside one another and we would all sit in a ragged circle, nestled against the pianos yet simultaneously afraid to touch them, and yet he never had a student sit at one and he at another, UNLESS, we got lucky enough to play a concerto on a rare day where he bestowed the ultimate gift of playing the orchestra part. (!) Unlike most teachers, who play a passage and then ask the student to copy them, he had a very different and unusual approach: If he wanted to show how the music should be played, he would amble over and sit right next to you, position his left hand on the high soprano register, and place your right arm snugly on top of his left arm and then play (yes, with his left hand he could play any right hand part in any piece). So instead of listening and copying, we were taken on a magical ride to FEEL what it felt like to crawl right inside the center of this music he loved so much. Normally, the handicapped person would be carried through by the able person, reliving an experience through touch and imagination. No, in reality, WE were the handicapped, who rode on his arm like a magic carpet, zooming to the outer worlds where gravity doesn’t exist and the air gets so thin you can hardly breathe. But what was it that he could do on the piano that NONE of us could ever replicate on our own?

For the answer to that, fortunately, we have some evidence. And an accomplice. When George Szell met Leon Fleisher in the mid 1940’s, it was the start of one of the greatest artistic collaborations the world has ever known. In the young Fleisher, Szell met his match. He finally found a pianist who could make his ten fingers sound as clear and defined and energetic and driven as he made the instruments sound in his orchestra. These concertos succeed so brilliantly because there is no soloist and an orchestra, there is the greatest orchestra in the world made BETTER by adding ten miraculous instruments. Everybody has had the experience of listening to Szell conduct a piece and suddenly hearing every single instrument clearly speaking as if directly into your own ear, and yet playing together with an indivisible precision. It is the ultimate sleight of hand, at once we hear the whole greater than its parts, and the parts greater than the whole — the performance literally an open book, the composer’s score in blazing black and white. This was the embodiment of Fleisher’s catchphrase “support the composer” – everything you do must be in service to transmit each black dot the way it was intended to be heard, but alas, so few people can actually do it.

In Szell’s orchestra, Fleisher heard the ideal that he already had in his own mind. But with Fleisher, Szell got something even better – someone who could actually do, effortlessly, with his two hands what Szell heard in HIS own mind. Fleisher’s supreme talent was that he had the rare ability to make every single note of any piece come alive with blinding clarity. If you listen to Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Variations, for example, the piano starts out as though it’s just one more instrument in Szell’s magisterial ensemble, the incisive melody blending in perfectly. Before you notice, the piano gets more and more significant, and when the individual solo interludes explode out of the string and wind sound, it sounds as organic and inexorable as a tsunami, and yet a tsunami where every individual drop of water is visible! Szell and Fleisher reinvented the soloist/ accompanist paradigm COMPLETELY. Take Mozart K. 503: Listen carefully to Fleisher’s Alberti bass, and instead of a series of four equal, rather repetitive eighth notes, you will hear each note with a different shape, sound, texture, all perfectly balanced and yet striving in completely different directions. In those simple musical gestures you will hear Papageno looking for his Papagena, Count Almaviva misbehaving, Figaro courting Susanna, Guglielmo plotting, Don Giovanni causing drama, all of Mozart’s characters flashing by in a few measures, and yet, instead of chaos, it’s harmony and humanity and humility.

Szell must have been gobsmacked to finally meet someone who could do with his ten fingers what the conductor could do with a whole orchestra – make every note of every part sing out so clearly that no audience would be able to resist.

And that is why, even after sixty years, his Beethoven and Brahms concerto recordings (as well as the above mentioned) have not been surpassed, and never will be. Thus, the testament he leaves us is what he did with his two hands. We can and should talk about Leon Fleisher’s incredible triumph over the handicap that threatened his existence, but let’s not let that be the headline. As impressive and laudable as that is, what he accomplished with two hands, and the lessons we received in Room 413, from one of the greatest pianists who has ever graced our planet, are so much more than that.

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  • Wonderful analysis of the genius of Leon Fleisher. For accuracy, Leon Fleisher and George Szell met in the 1940s in New York. Prophetically their first collaboration with the Cleveland Orchestra was in 1946, Szell’s first year as Music Director, performing the Brahms D minor concerto. It is generally accepted that in Leon Fleisher GS had finally found a musician with the musical insights of Artur Schnabel but with significantly greater technical prowess.
    I can’t help but note that LF passed almost exactly 50 years after GS and if there is such a thing as an afterlife they are surely making music again.

  • Thank you for this very beautiful piece about Leon Fleisher. It is a rare example of putting into words your ideas. They illuminate the power of Fleisher, the artist, and of music. Of music.

  • Help. In my post, just submitted, please add “about music” to the sentence that now ends with “your ideas”.
    Many thanks.

  • ” When George Szell met Leon Fleisher in the late 1950’s, it was the start of one of the greatest artistic collaborations the world has ever known.” This may overstate it somewhat, but thank you for these wonderful reflections.

    • Would it be hyperbolic to state that classical musicians are the most hyperbole-prone class of people in the history of mankind?

  • I know I’m a minority view here and this will be severely unpopular, but I think Fleisher was a much greater artist once he got out of the Szell orbit and became a teacher. When you hear the Szell recordings, you hear a young genius, but you also hear just how severely Fleisher drove himself and what might have injured him. It’s like a pianist made out of steel, and while there’s probably never been a better performance of Beethoven 3, the playing is so clear it almost sounds mechanical. For a work like Beethoven 3 or 5 it’s fine, but it’s rarely human or vulnerable enough for works like Beethoven 4 or Brahms 2 that require truly mature artistry – which Fleisher obviously had in spades by the time he was an older master even if his hand wasn’t cooperating. When you hear older players who recorded those works as mature artists around the same time: Rubinstein, Backhaus, Curzon, Kempff, Serkin, you may hear wrong notes, but you instantly hear the intimacy and vulnerability Fleisher developed only later once he had known tragedy and setbacks.

    • Obviously we hear the recordings of the Brahms 2 and Beethoven 4 quite differently. The former has both the passion of the first 2 movements with the warmth and humor of the last 2. As for the latter, the performance from the piano and podium couldn’t be more different, appropriately than that of the 3rd and 5th. The piece is in G major for a reason and all concerned treated it as such. Last, sorry but the notion that Leon Fleisher injured himself because of Szell’s approach to music is idiotic. Fleisher himself acknowledged that he both practiced to excess and he specifically indicated that unlike Glenn Gould he never warmed up properly, pre-soaking in warm water, before playing. Everyone is entitled to their opinion about a performance but suggesting that GS was largely responsible for LF’s injury is irresponsible.

      • Calm down dude, I’m not saying that Szell was responsible for it, I’m saying that young Fleisher and Szell were peas in a pod, and that approach may seem fine when it comes from a conductor and you don’t hear stories about the well-being of his musicians (who were clearly miserable playing for him), but the end result of that kind of perfectionism is that it can damage the hands. A little less clarity, a little more warmth, and we might have had another 55 years of standard rep Fleisher recordings.

        • Thanks, dude for the condescending bs. First, as expressed by Mr. Bloom and others like Robert Marcellus, Abraham Skernick, Cloyd Duff, Rafael Durian…not everyone was miserable. Second, clarity does not lead to injury. Similarly, playing the wrong notes doesn’t equal profundity or warmth or anything other than an inadvertent mistake. Somehow Schnabel, Serkin, Browning, Casadesus, Johannesen ..all managed to perform with Szell regularly and successfully without injury. Was Szell also responsible in part for Gary Graffman’s injury? Express your opinions freely about what appeals to you in performance art but leave the rest of the crap for twitter.

        • I should have added that if you are the person who wrote this incredibly uninformed statement 2 years ago I rest my case.
          “It’s hard to believe that anybody remembers who Leon Fleisher is except in little old Baltimore, where a small coterie of music lovers regard him as legend among legends.”

        • Here i have to vehemently disagree with you. Cleveland orchestra musicians LOVED Szell. Loved. Talk to any of them who are still alive, and listen to videos of those who have passed. Start with Myron Bloom.

          • The orchestra respected Szell, but it’s documented that nearly half the orchestra was seeing psychiatrists during a period when nobody admitted to seeing therapists. First desk musicians may have felt differently, but there are so many stories of how terrified the rest of the musicians were of him.

            Even so, thank you so much for your extremely valuable reflections. It’s always wonderful to know that there are still good, intelligent, knowledgable, hard working people in the music world who continue to spread light to dark places. Fleisher was a great light and I’m sure you will do everything in your power to keep his light alive for new generations.

            All the best,

            Evan

    • Yes, he certainly developed in maturity as he aged, as most people do. I wanted to talk about his later performances, especially those informal times when he did sit down and play for us with two hands. No matter the piece, the depth was striking, and always moving. But who knows what contributed to what. He was a private person and didn’t like talking about himself.

    • Well I support a lot of what you say. These early recordings with Szell are terrific but there is an extreme sort of tautness in how Fleisher plays, and I think to a pianist who listens to it, it is not a total mystery how he got hurt. He does not have the deep relaxed tone of Schnabel. Nor would I say it went away entirely — his Brahms quintet with the Emerson has the same quality. For me though — man can he make his approach work. I just relistened in memoriam to these records. Every phrase he sculpts rings authentic to me and I just love listening to him play for hours.

  • Extremely thoughtful and moving. I especiall liked the parts about Fleisher and George Szell and the Hebrew word B’reishit.

    Amazing.

    Thanks for this.

  • This is a beautiful piece. It seems Leon Fleischer, in teaching, also
    musicians who were fine writers. Thank you for the glimpses in the time with him.

  • Thank you so much for this wonderful, inspiring reminiscence, Lori.

    There is something magical about the number 413. When I took on my last teaching position in 1985 here in Switzerland, they gave me a room with a Steinway grand model O … and the number was 413. I felt then that life was treating me very well, indeed.

    “…with his left hand he could play any right hand part in any piece…”

    Yes indeed, he could … I played the Chopin F minor Fantasy in a rep class for him once, and there is a fairly intricate right-hand passage in double notes starting shortly after the “agitato” section begins, in A-Flat Major (at bar 73 or thereabouts) which is one of the most beautiful melodies Chopin ever wrote. Leon was not happy with my rendition, so he sat down next to me and played along an octave higher with his left hand — not just the upper melodic line, but all of the notes. Had he ever practiced it that way? Surely not!

    But the most amazing demonstration for me was when another student (again, in his rep class) was attempting to play the second movement (scherzo) of Chopin’s 3rd Sonata in B minor for him and just kept getting terribly messed up. That piece is a tour-de-force for the right hand, and I’m sure that every pianist who ever worked on the piece will remember the hours spent in getting it “just right” — fairy-like lightness, with flashes of lightning ever so often, and as fast as things can possibly go. So he sat down, and showed the student how he would practice it — with his left hand, he first broke down the passage in two-note intervals grouped harmonically, then spoke a little about the shape of the phrase, THEN proceeded to play about a whole page of it WITH HIS LEFT HAND at blazing speed.

    I think he must have really enjoyed shaming all of us like that at times, although he was certainly one of the most kindhearted people one could ever meet.

    • Thank you for sharing these terrific memories. Please join us on the facebook Tribute page “Tribute to Leon Fleisher, by his students”

      • Thanks, Lori. Can I do this even though I don’t have (and don’t want to have) a Facebook account? Also, I was never a regular student of his; my teacher at Peabody was Walter Hautzig.

        However, I frequently played for Leon Fleisher in his rep classes at Peabody and also in master classes. I remember mostly Toulouse, France in 1979 where I really wanted to play Beethoven Op. 111 for him, but nobody amongst the participants had prepared the Liszt Sonata, which he really wanted to teach (it was being recorded by Radio France, and he had so much to say about the piece). Fortunately, I had it in my fingers, so I “volunteered”. 🙂 He taught me mostly in English then because my French was very limited. But with all of the other participants, he spoke French quite fluently — of course, he spent several years in Paris on an exchange scholarship (read Gary Graffman’s book “I Really Should Be Practicing” for more details on that.)

  • Quite an extraordinary take on the Fleisher persona-brava! I was among his earlier students, 1967-69 and certainly his approach to teaching evolved over the years. Those lessons and subsequent meetings over the decades are among my fondest memories.

  • Lori, nice to read this memory of the crazy amazing LH rides our RH;s rode in those lessons on the current of his energy. I remember your goldbergs of which i’ve been reminded of elsewhere, your former colleague, AP

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