The indispensable Leon Fleisher

The indispensable Leon Fleisher


norman lebrecht

August 03, 2020

The indefatigable Leon Fleisher, who has died aged 92, may have been the greatest American Brahms interpreter.

As a Schnabel student, he penetrated Beethoven with ease and illumination, especially the G major concerto which he played as if Schnabel was listening outside the door.

He was an exemplary teacher.

He taught us how to cope with adversity.

He had his own way with Bach.

And he made Hindemith sound almost sexy.


With Menahem Pressler, 2016



  • fflambeau says:

    Of course he was a great pianist but I think he would have thought being called a great human and humanist would be more important. Some commentators have mentioned that “think what he could have done had he not lost use of his right hand for so many years.”

    But he himself said that injury and loss made him a deeper person and performer.

    • Been Here Before says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful observation. And thanks NL for posting these wonderful youtube clips. Enjoyed them deeply!

      An indispensable artist indeed, one of the few, and a great human being, too. R.I.P.

      • Greg Bottini says:

        I second everything you wrote, Been Here Before.
        Fleisher’s concerto recordings with Szell and the CO are basic library recommendations. Everything about them sounds simply *right*.
        And I’ll add my own thanks to Norman for the marvelous vids!

        • David K. Nelson says:

          Few things on record can get the pulse racing like hearing Fleisher and Szell in the third movement of the Brahms D Minor Concerto. I think it would be positively dangerous to listen to while driving. You find yourself not breathing normally.

          CBS/Sony Classical has reissued/remixed the Fleisher/Szell Beethoven and Brahms Concerto recordings a number of times in the CD era. This suggests they fully appreciate the intrinsic value of what they have on the Fleisher shelf in the Columbia Records/Epic vault (or did appreciate at one time) but it creates some challenges for the frugal record collector who is not compulsive about comparing how well this or that version of the same recording has been remixed or remastered.

          I bought the marvelous Beethoven set when it was filled out with the Triple Concerto with Ormandy/ Philadelphia and of course the Istomin/Stern/Rose trio, which made musical sense I suppose but not record collector sense, which regrets that Fleisher didn’t record the Triple Concerto. (Quite apart from the fact that I already had that Triple Concerto in an Isaac Stern collection and didn’t want/need it again). The Fleisher/Szell Mozart Concerto No. 25 made much more record collector sense and a fair amount of musical sense as a coupling and that has also been available to fill out the Beethovens.

          For the two Brahms Concertos, it was generous and even inspired of Sony Classical to look back into the monaural parts of their vast holdings and couple the stereo concertos with Brahms’s Handel Variations and the Waltzes in mono, in a two-CD set. By “inspired” I mean that for a while it had seemed that Columbia, and then Sony, resisted combining the stereo and monaural recordings of the same artist on the same release. (This in spite of the fact that a case can be made that Columbia monaural recordings of the 1950s often have more pleasing sound than their early stereo efforts.)

          But I do believe Sony has since boxed up the Beethoven AND the Brahms completes PLUS those couplings (Mozart No. 25 rather than that Triple Concerto) and that would seem the one to get if one lacks it and it can be found. There is also a Leon Fleischer complete Columbia recording CD box which may or may not be available. Perhaps this sad occasion will bring it back to availability as a memorial.

  • Novagerio says:

    His Brahms Concertos with Szell are legendarian, but don’t forget Julius Katchen among the finest Brahms interpreters.

    • Adrian CLARK says:

      Nor should Clifford Curzon be forgottenm either.

    • A Pianist says:

      I agree both with your respect for Fleisher, and your point that “best American Brahms player” is a slightly odd choice of focus when Julius Katchen might have been the greatest Brahms player anywhere. But I would not want to be without the interpretations of either.

      • I grew up listening to the Brahms F minor Quintet recording of Leon Fleisher with the Juilliard Quartet. As much as I admire Julius Katchen’s playing, I wouldn’t trade this for any other interpretation (and that goes for the concerti as well).

        I guess we all more or less expected him to live forever. He was probably my greatest role model and inspiration at the piano. Very sad to know that he won’t be giving more concerts and master classes.

        May his memory be a blessing!

    • Raro says:

      I have no doubt that in the time they were made the Szell/Fleisher recordings of Brahms were communicative interpretations. Listening now, they seem to be relics of the post-war era. The rhythms in particular are turbo-charged. Everything is breathless, anxious. Very hard to enjoy…

  • Amos says:

    His recordings with George Szell and the CO have made for indispensable listening for over 60 years. IMO no one has ever equaled the majesty and poetry of the Brahms Concerti as their 1958 & 1963 recordings. I’ve always been struck by a photograph of LF and GS taken by Don Hunstein at the sessions for the Brahms 2nd in which LF is playing and GS is standing to the side watching with an expression that I would characterize as that of an extremely proud parent. It is clear that LF regarded his collaborations with the CO as special and unique because he indicated that the most memorable musical experience of his career was performing the Mozart 25th and the dialogue he and Principal oboe Marc Lifschey shared in the last movement. Last, proof that he was self-deprecating can be found in his autobiography when he recounted playing Beethoven for Schnabel, his teacher said magnificent, stopping to thank his “sainted teacher” only to have AS respond not you Beethoven. Thanks are woefully inadequate so condolences to his family.

    • Amos says:

      I should have added that LF also went out of his way to extol the playing of Mr. Bloom especially the opening solo of the Brahms B-flat major. I also recall his recounting a practical joke instituted by GS in which he instructed MB to play the opening a semi-tone higher. Apparently LF and everyone else heard the change and followed suit for a few bars before giving up. Anyone interested in LF should find the interview from Johns Hopkins on YouTube.

  • M. Arnold says:

    A personal experience with Fleischer:
    In the late 50’s , I was a friend of violinist Berl Senofsky who, one day told me he needed someone to turn pages for a recording he and his close friend Leon Fleischer were making of, I think, the Faure sonatas. I reminded him I can’t read a note of music but he said that it was OK , Leon would nod which he did and not to be nervous because Leon was a “real mensch” which he was.

    • Senofsky eventually recorded this with Gary Graffman, together with the Debussy sonata. I believe there is also a recording made shortly after he won the Brussels competition. They are absolutely amazing performances! Some Brahms and Prokofiev with Senofsky/Graffman are also available on CD.

      This would have been around the time that Fleisher’s right hand problems started up. The collaboration would have been fantastic, but alas, it never happened. It must have been in the planning stage. I think it’s one of the great tragedies of music that they never recorded together, although there might have been some performances.

      When I was a student at Peabody, there was a ping-pong table set up in the lounge of the dorms next to the cafeteria. Both Berl and Leon would often show off their amazing table tennis proficiency during teaching breaks, both being cracks at it. What memories…

      By the way, practically all of his life Leon had to tell people to spell his name “Fleisher — without a C”.

      • Amos says:

        I recall reading that they performed together in Cleveland during BS’s tenure as Associate Concertmaster and LF a frequent visitor.

  • A Pianist says:

    When I was coming up in the 90s, being a Fleisher student at Curtis was simply the finest piano pedigree you could have in the United States. And he was the opposite of a DeLay type; he produced solid, serious musicians, the list of which just seems to go on forever.

    A maestro whose legacy does him justice.

  • Edgar Self says:

    A great loss, and one of the last links to Artur Schnabel along with Karl Ulrich Schnabel, Claude Frank, , Lilli Kraus, and Florence Kirsch of Chicago.

    Fleisher’s contemporaries William Kapell, in the Brahms first with Mitropoulos live from Kapell’s last year of 1953; and Van Cliburn in Brahms’s second with Kondrashin, are other notable American Brahmsians, with Tzimon Barto today in the Brahms Paganini variations, and Marc-Andre Hamelin, a Baja Canadian, in Brahms’s second with a lilting finale.

    Did ‘Gary Graffman and Byron Janis play and record them? The late John Browning and Abbey Simon completed that strong generation of American pianists together with the admired Katchen, who died at 43.

    • Amos says:

      Gary Graffman recorded the Brahms D minor with Munch/BSO for RCA.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      Add Eugene Istomin to the formidable generation of US born pianists from the 1920s. It would be unfair to leave out Van Cliburn. At his best he had been a force to be reckoned with, as Emil Gilels would have confirmed at the Tchaikovsky competition.

      • dgar Self says:

        Petros, I fully agree as to EUGENE istomin, whom I thought of only after with poster’s regret.

        Richter and Shostakovich got into trouble at the Tchaikovsky competition that Cliburn won by casting all ten of their votes for him, skewing the result. A late phone call to Krutschev settled the matter and gave Van the prize. Shostakovich was chairman of the jury, and neither was invited again.

        Cliburn’s best two encores, Schumann-liszt “Widmung” and Szymanowski’s Concert Etude in B-flat mminor, Op. 4, can stand in piano recording history. He often played them, and there are recordings.

        Another Van success was playing and singing “Moscow Nights” at the White House with Gorbachev singing along. His Brahms second with Kondrashin is almost statesmanlike.

  • Monsoon says:

    Like many, many others, I grew up with Brahms and Beethoven concerti recordings and always return to them. Incredible that he was only 30 when he recorded the Brahms D Minor.

    His “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” is also not to be missed.

  • William Earnhart says:

    When I was 12 yrs. old, Leon Fleisher performed with the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra. Before the concert, I was warming up playing the Mozart D Major concerto behind the stage curtain. Suddenly, I heard the accompaniment from the other side of the curtain. It was Maestro Fleisher playing along. Many years later, he was performing with the Indianapolis Symphony, of which I was a member of the violin section. I couldn’t believed that he remembered that occasion! What a thrill for a 12 yr. old as well as an adult so many years later. He was an incredible musician and human being. He will be sorely missed.

    • dgar Self says:

      marvelous sTofy, William Earnhardt. D major Mozart might be No. 26, The “Coronation’, as No.16 in D was rarely played then except by Rudolf Serkin, with its rondo theme borrowed for Lucky Strike’s “Be happy, go Lucky” advertisements.

      I might have heard you in the Indianapolis Symphony, on leave from Ft. Benjamin Harrison to hear Sevitzky conduct a concert “Lohengrin” with Blanche hebom.

  • M2N2K says:

    A few times in 1980s and 1990s, I had the pleasure of rehearsing and performing Ravel’s Left Hand Concerto with Leon Fleisher, and I don’t think I have ever heard anyone play it better than he did, either before or after. Thank you, dear Master, for your exquisite music making!

  • fflambeau says:

    The late great Leon Fleisher’s parents came from Odessa, then in Russia.

    So many great pianists from that area, incuding, Y. Kissin, S. Richter, B. Moiseiwitsch, , M. Grinberg, and of course, E. Gilels.

    Why was that?

  • William Safford says:

    I had never before heard the Hindemith. Thank you for including it.

  • Rudolf A. Bruil says:

    I’m preparing a listing for a slip case with 4 LPs of Leon Fleisher and George Szell with the Beethoven Concertos. Dynamic and where necessary sensitive playing. Number 4 sounds completely different from the Klemperer! Now I just found out that Leon Fleisher died on the 2nd of August, at the age of 92.
    When I was a student I bought a 10″ Philips LP with Variations symphoniques and Paganini Rhapsody played by him and conducted by George Szell and listened to it every so often.