The history of pianist Leon Fleisher’s career is one of the great comeback stories in American life.
His genius was apparent as early as age 9, when he became the youngest pupil ever to be taught by the great Artur Schnabel. By age 16 he was appearing with the New York Philharmonic under Pierre Monteux. When he signed a deal with Columbia/Epic in 1954 to record every major piano and orchestra work from the standard repertoire with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, it was a bit of musical history in the making—and he was only in him mid-20s. The recordings he made for the label between 1954 and 1963 are still considered classics.
Then, at the height of Fleisher’s career, disaster struck in the form of focal dystonia of the right hand in 1965. Undaunted, he continued to record and perform, concentrating on works for the left hand alone. There’s more of that than you might think thanks, in part, to the many works written for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein (older brother of famed philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein), who lost his right hand in World War I.
By the early years of the 21st century, though, Fleisher began to recover the use of his right hand as a result of botox injections and the system of soft tissue manipulation known as Rolfing. In 2004 he made his first two-handed recording in forty years and continues to concertize today. In a review for 88.1 KDHX of his performance of Ravel’s “Concerto for the Left Hand” with the St. Louis Symphony last April, I described his playing as “both powerful and elegant.” “Mr. Fleisher may walk like an octogenarian,” I wrote, “but he doesn’t play like one.”
In recognition of Fleisher’s fifty-five year career, Sony Classical (which now owns the Columbia/Epic library) is issuing a 23-CD set titled “Leon Fleisher: The Complete Album.” It’s scheduled for release on July 16th, in anticipation of Fleisher’s 85th birthday on the 23rd. Fleisher himself will observe his birthday year with a concert tour that will include a performance with the Chicago Symphony at the Ravinia Festival on July 28th.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously claimed that there were “no second acts in American life.” Leon Fleisher is one of the more famous examples of how wrong that assessment can be.