The Return of a Master

Leon Fleisher Plays Three Mozart Piano Concerti

Leon Fleisher, pianist, conductor

Katherine Jacobson Fleisher, pianist

Stuttgarter Kammerorchester

Sony Classical

Sometimes I wish I could write prose like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote music. Maybe that’s a difficult lesson to learn in itself: Mozart’s music isn’t boring; it’s elegant. It’s the sheer simplicity that can be maddening, and Mozart isn’t an exception — the harmonic ease and clarity of melodic lines in Mozart’s music often seem bland or generic, and that, in itself, seems to be the sticking point: it’s not everyone who can write music so cleanly. After one listens to the music repeatedly, it somehow loses its blandness and realizes its — well — elegance.

Mozart is certainly known for his talents as an opera composer, and his contributions to the symphonic and sonata genres are considerable, but few. Mozart’s concerti, however, are another matter; after Vivaldi in the early eighteenth century, it is Mozart’s work with the genre that ossifies the form into a comprehensible structure, and maybe most exemplary are the piano concerti.

Of the twenty-seven concerti Mozart composed (yes, it’s a feat, but concerti from the classical era were less weighty than the more familiar ones of the romantic era; Beethoven wrote five for the piano, Brahms, only two), we’re lucky to have three (concerto nos. 12, 7 and 23) recorded by pianist Leon Fleisher as both pianist and conductor of the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester on his most recent release on the Sony Classical Label. Lucky for multiple reasons: Fleisher’s career is marked with a forty-year hiatus due to loss of his right hand to focal dystonia. Lucky for us, Fleisher recently returned to the stage (or, at least, recording) in 2004, releasing his first album in over forty years, entitled “Two Hands” and the results have been consistently impressive since his return.

Lucky also because Fleisher’s Mozart somehow stands on its own; it’s no discredit to the sound quality necessarily, but this recording doesn’t necessarily employ the stereophonic hijinx that seems to be the growing trend in classical music, transforming innocent works into voluptuous masterpieces of engineering designed to test the depth, range and fidelity of a sound system. Fleisher’s recording has merit on a computer speaker as well as the stereophile’s contraption.

Fleisher’s magic is somehow more indelibly connected to the interpretation than that. From the very beginning, for instance, in the Allegro of concerto no. 12 in A major (K414), there is an indelible sense of Mozart’s elegance and simplicity, not only in the spare texture afforded the orchestra (spare, but by no means sallow) but by the overriding clarity of Mozart’s clean line — improvised passages and the cadenza have the sense of precisely that. The second Adagio movement doesn’t loll into somnolence as slow music might — there is decorous space and room for both pianist and orchestra that maintain a consistent dialogue. This dialogue springs to the life in the witty Rondeau — Allegretto conclusion that manages its subtle moments of introspection.

Katherine Jacobson Fleisher joins Mr. Fleisher in the concerto no. 7 in F major (The Lodron) for three pianos, scored for two piano by the composer. The almost French overture style of the opening of the first movement foretell the grandeur afforded by the combined powers of the two pianists and the work doesn’t fail on that account, somehow managing to maintain the same genre-specific concepts that motivated the first concerto.

Fleisher’s release concludes with the concerto no. 23 in A major. I can recommend the entire disc wholeheartedly, but it’s worth paying attention to this work in particular. Among a profundity of overwhelmingly glib works, Mozart’s opus can sometimes seem lacking in gravity. The title for this concerto doesn’t lie — certainly, this, too, is a work in A major, a key often associated with love. But there’s more — a sudden solemnity in the opening theme, unexpected dips into the sorrow of the key of a minor, lush orchestral arrivals that somehow tug at the heartstrings all underscored in unassuming accuracy and detail by Fleisher’s unsurpassable attention to detail. Listen for an accompaniment to the orchestra in the first movement where the piano doubles the orchestra on descending scales in a surprising flutter of octave descent — that’s not an accident.

This is Mozart as we don’t expect to hear him — somehow profound and oddly melancholy. The F-sharp minor Adagio (Mozart’s only movement ever in this key) is startling in its starkness, and the piano opening in Fleisher’s hands is a sobering monologue that somehow seems to tolerate the orchestral interludes. It’s clear: the piano is the star here and we’ll have to tolerate the orchestra to get back to what the piano was saying. The concerto concludes with a refreshing Allegro assai movement that seems to wash away the gravity but somehow manages to break into a chord progression Beethoven would reserve for the conclusion of his piano sonata no. 21 (the Waldstein) nearly twenty years later. The rondo form is not lost compositionally and neither for Fleisher, who — miraculously — seems to state the music with a different sensitivity every time it appears.

It’s an interesting question to try to determine a preference as to pre- or post- dystonic Fleisher, but maybe it’s a discussion left for later — we’re lucky to have Fleisher back at the piano and these three piano concerti are no exception. It’s rare to hear Mozart in the articulation of simplicity and clarity he obviously composed for, rare to hear the tender melancholy of a man not known for his gravity (Mozart wrote only two of forty-one symphonies in minor keys) treated with such intellectual integrity and attention to detail, but rarest still, perhaps, to have a musician of Fleisher’s quality returned to us.