Monday, October 6, 2008

Fête galante

In Jordan Hall last Friday, the Celebrity Series threw an 80th birthday party for Leon Fleisher (left), the eminent pianist and teacher who has now recovered, thanks to Botox, of all things, from an affliction in his right hand that put his concert career on hold for forty years. Mr. Fleisher had invited Yefim Bronfman and Jonathan Biss, as well as his wife, Katherine Jacobson Fleisher, to perform with him a highly varied program (as well as play musical chairs with four piano benches of varying heights). As all birthday parties should be, this one was a festive, affectionate occasion that often charmed - but also, like many parties, got a little shaggy here and there.

Mr. Fleisher was one of the most brilliant pianists of his generation, and then one of its most brilliant pedagogues, and his return to two-handed playing is nothing less than a miracle; still, it's a stretch for him to share the stage with such star former students as Yefim Bronfman and Jonathan Biss (a stretch his loving public, it should be said, is more than ready to make). Mr. Fleisher's opening solo, Bach's "Sheep May Safely Graze," was perhaps his finest moment; this imperfect reading of that standard betrayed the kinds of flaws that reveal the depths of time's ravages, and hinted at Mr. Fleisher's fortitude in braving the same - and was all the more moving as a result. Elsewhere, playing the lower register of various four-handers - some of them of impressive technical difficulty - he was less in the spotlight, but still prone to little gaffes such as a bit of confusion with his page turner, or a sudden false start, that kept his performances slightly blurred.

Fortunately, the pearly, utterly precise touch of both Bronfman and Biss was the focal point of much of the concert; together they stand as quite a testament to Mr. Fleisher's legacy as a teacher, and their teamwork with him was in itself both touching and inspiring. Meanwhile Bronfman's solo rendition of Schumann's Arabeske in C Major was a luminous gem, before he confidently switched gears to bring an almost savage stomp - playing against Mr. Fleisher - to selections from Dvořák's Slavonic Dances. Biss was, if anything, even more impressive, bringing a dazzling facility to Schubert's scampering "Fantasie in F Minor," and then Beethoven's most "Schubert-esque" sonata, the intriguingly abbreviated No. 27.

Katherine Jacobson Fleisher made a less exciting impression with her first offering, Mozart's Rondo in A minor, which came off, somehow, as almost over-thought and therefore under-interpreted; but once paired with her husband for Ravel's weird über-waltz, La Valse, she seemed fired with a sudden verve and musicality. Husband and wife managed well the piece's thick cascades of notes, and even its fiendish double glissandos. Mr. Fleisher, however, who was pedalling, played with a rather heavy foot, which was fine for his own rolling, threatening bass, but less optimal for the splashes of color in his wife's upper register, which should glitter like spray over the darker roil of the piece. Nevertheless, their playing was vital and passionate throughout, and brought the crowd to its feet. We didn't get to sing "Happy Birthday," but at that moment I think just about everyone in the hall wanted to.

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