Ateş Orga writes:
Leon Fleisher came from that generation of Americans born in the 1920s who were to bring their platinum-plated synthesis of native talent and European honing to dominate the world scene of the Cold War years. His peers included Graffman, Istomin, Janis, Johannesen, Kapell, Katchen, Lateiner, Lewenthal, Pennario and Pressler; his younger contemporaries John Browning, Ivan Davis and Van Cliburn. Between them, they were the laureates of a pantheon of master-teachers ranging from Cortot, Julius Isserlis and Robert Casadesus across the Atlantic to, at home, Vengerova (an early Goldenweiser disciple), Rudolf Serkin, Petri, Horowitz and the Lhevinnes (Josef and Rosinna) from pre-Revolution Russia.
Fleisher himself worked with Schnabel (1938-48). During the fifties, the braver, the so-inclined, vied with the new-blood Soviets to command the big-time competition circuit. In 1952, following three years of self-re-evaluation in Paris, Fleisher became the first American ever to win a major international prize – the first Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, the jury including Marguerite Long, Rubinstein, Casadesus and Firkusny. Six years later Cliburn from Texas walked into history with gold at the first Tchaikovsky in Moscow under the chairmanship of Shostakovich. Browning ran second by a short head to Ashkenazy in the 1956 Queen Elisabeth (Lazar Berman trailing home fifth). Those competitions were as contested as the space race – as meaningful, too.
The European perception of post-war American pianists used to be of a cavalry charge of super-armed, steel-fingered technicians, playing louder and breaking more strings than anyone else. In love with the modern but embarrassed by the romantic, more brittle than beautiful, ultimately superficial. Cynically, we used to reflect, Moscow was for pugilists. Only poets went to Warsaw (not until 1970 did Garrick Ohlsson win the Chopin Competition for the USA, an award dominated from the beginning by Soviets – Oborin, Uninski, Zak, Davidovich).
Every American you heard seemed to be another Jupiter of the octaves, a prince of scales, a knight of thirds, a king of trills (to misquote von Bülow). They never fell off the high-wire, their act was faultless, their sophistication as slick as their demeanour. Even Harold C. Schonberg of the New York Times had to admit: “eclectic in approach, clear in outline, metrically a little inflexible, tonally a little hard, [Americans] tend to be literalists who try for a direct translation of the printed note. In a way they are junior executives, company men, well trained, confident and efficient, and rather lacking in personality. On the whole their playing leans towards caution … they curb their temperament to the point where they will seldom take a chance… Planning is substituted for daring” (The Great Pianists, 1963). Put another way (Leschetizky’s): “accustomed to keeping all their faculties in readiness for the unexpected, [American] perceptions are quick, and they possess considerable technical facility. They study perhaps more for the sake of being up to date than for the love of music” (Annette Hullah, 1906).
Fleisher showed us a different being. Justifying Schnabel’s faith, here was not so much an all-gloss, barnstorming virtuoso in conservatory packaging as a weightily serious cosmopolitan (his father was Russian, his mother Polish) playing the Austro-German classics with a directness and intensity unprepared to wait for age. Like another West Coaster, the younger Stephen Kovacevich (who went to London to study with the veteran Myra Hess, mistress of “eloquence born of understatement”), he cut his youthful teeth on Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert (demanding, unforgiving territory), at sixteen triumphing in the Brahms D-minor with the New York Philharmonic-Symphony under Monteux – who called him “the pianistic find of the century” (he knew his pianists). Subsequently, an inspirational partnership with Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra for CBS yielded a formidably tough, “virile” Beethoven cycle (1959/61, the Emperor winning a Grammy), both Brahms, and the big Mozart C-major, K503. In the late-fifties/early-sixties (he was just into his thirties) such repertory, particularly on record, placed him at once in elite company – Arrau, Schnabel, Solomon, Kempff, Backhaus, Serkin (the Americanized European), Katchen (the Europeanized American), Curzon, Annie Fischer. Ashkenazy, Barenboim, Brendel, Gilels, Lupu – they were still benchmarks of the future. It pre-supposed, and confirmed, a special order of intellect.
America’s first-generation émigré paragons habitually placed technique in perspective. “Technique is a chest of tools from which the skilled artisan draws what he needs at the right time for the right purpose. The mere possession of the tools means nothing; it is the instinct – the artistic intuition as to when and how to use the tools – that counts” (Hofmann, 1920). “Technique … embraces everything that makes for artistic piano playing – good fingering, phrasing, pedalling, dynamics, agogics, time and rhythm – in a word, the art of musical expression distinct from the mechanics.” (Godowsky, 1933). “Technique [is] never a goal in itself ; rather, it [is] only a means to express the ideas of the composer” (Rosina Lhevinne, 1971). “Piano technique, as Schnabel used the term and taught it, is the faculty to establish channels between the sound heard inwardly and its realization in all individualized subtlety, or, as one might say, channels between the ‘soul’ and ‘body’ of the interpretation of a score” (Konrad Wolff, 1972). Echoing this, Fleisher believes “it’s your musical ideas that form or decide for you what kind of technique you are going to use. In other words, if you are trying to get a certain sound, you just experiment around to find the movement that will get this sound. That is technique” (Clavier, September 1963). “The great challenge for the pianist is to make a line, an exorable line, from note to note [the end], just by depressing a series of keys [the means]. It isn’t easy” (David Duval interview, Piano Quarterly, spring 1990).
Fleisher attributed the loss of function in his right hand in the early sixties (medically, focal distonia, a neurological disorder) to over-zealous practice (seven to eight hours a day) and too many concerts. In wedlock with the pedals (Busoni’s “photograph of the sky”), fired by a searching, profound musical sensibility, his mano sinistra became the new “Thalberg three” of our day.
“Looking back, I’d say what seemed at the time to be an irretrievable tragedy, turned out really to the ‘expander’ of my life.”
Adapted from an essay contributed to Great Pianists of the 20th Century (Vol.27, Philips/Steinway 1998), Tom Deacon executive producer.