Brahms Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 2; Handel Variations; Waltzes
Writing of these memorable recordings in his accompanying essay New York’s Tim Page refers to Leon Fleisher and George Szell as “two extraordinary and mutually responsive artists”. He also quotes Pierre Monteux’s description of Fleisher as “the pianistic find of the century”. Such praise is exemplary rather than fulsome, and revisiting these performances after some years I was once again awed by the rarest musical commitment and single-mindedness. In the First Concerto’s opening tutti Szell generates a flame-like pace and momentum that are matched to perfection by Fleisher’s youthful, tightly coiled pianism. You may find Szell’s opening to the central Adagio plain-speaking to a fault but Fleisher’s reply, his “still small voice of calm”, provides a haunting compensation, and their combined forces in the finale are like a river in full spate: fierce and virtuosic indeed. However, despite such white-hot intensity nothing is omitted, and there are constant reminders of Artur Schnabel, Fleisher’s “sainted” teacher (his own words), of a robust eloquence that is, however, underlined by a formidably controlled and focused technique.
Again, in the Second Concerto Fleisher and Szell share their belief in the inexorable impetus and logic of great music and yet there is no lack of lyrical speculation in, say, the opening (with its promise of epic things to come) or in a moment at 0'46'' in the Allegro appassionato of an almost Schumannesque ardour and gentleness. The Andante’s dreaming piu lento is ideally poised and inward and in that “great and child-like finale” (Tovey) the taut muscularity of Fleisher’s and Szell’s musicianship suggests an underlying volcanic force that forbids all possible dalliance or superficiality.
The substantial encores or solo items, too, show Fleisher as one of those special artists who can achieve the most concentrated musicianship without a hint of exaggeration or sentimentality. He can take a severe hand to Brahms’s grazioso in Var. 18 from Op. 24 but in the musical-box chimes of Var. 20 his light pedal haze provides an imaginative recompense for a certain glassiness or severity elsewhere. In the Op. 39 Waltzes he is as affectionate as he is vivacious and, overall, the resolution, athleticism and authority of all these performances frequently silence criticism. The recordings may show their age but they have been excellently remastered and the sound never detracts from Fleisher’s pristine mastery and musicianship. Sony’s presentation includes a touching and amusing essay by Fleisher himself and several evocative session photographs.'