Takacs: Toccata and Fugue for Left Hand, Op. 56
Bach: Chaconne in D Minor for Piano for Left Hand (Arr. Brahms)
What to do on a gray, wet and cold winter Sunday in New York City? How about hearing world-famous pianist Leon Fleischer play for 30 minutes and talk about his life and career for an additional hour in an intimate space for the price of a movie ticket? Now that is some sunshine for you! And that’s exactly what I did this afternoon in the Greene Space of the WQRX (105.9 fm) radio station where Leon Fleischer made a stop on the promotional tour for his newly released biography “My Nine Lives: A memoir of Many Careers in Music”, which he co-wrote with Anne Midgette, the Washington Post classical music critic. Even the merciless rain had temporarily stopped falling for the occasion!
Due to time constraints, Leon Fleisher was only able to perform two pieces and had to do it with his left hand only, again, because these days his right hand is still recovering from a recent surgery and his doctors advised that he couldn’t “use his right thumb professionally” just yet. Bust since he had mastered the left-hand repertoire decades ago after his right hand became inexplicably, if temporarily, paralyzed, there was no doubt that he would not disappoint either the lucky few in the studio or the larger audience following the live broadcast on the radio or the Internet.
The first piece was Takacs’ Toccata and Fugue for Left Hand, which the Hungarian composer wrote in grand baroque style when he was a mere 18-year-old. It is extremely vivid and deeply harmonious at the same time, a nice combination that Leon Fleischer kept in perfect balance.
Bach’s famous Chaconne is of course better known in its version for violin, but the piano transcription of it for the left hand, which Brahms wrote for Clara Schumann after she hurt her right hand, is quite a masterpiece as well. All 66 variations of the four-bar theme are still there, just one octave lower – Obviously Brahms knew not to mess around with a good thing when he saw one – and seeing Leon Fleischer work his way through it just a few feet away, sometimes discreetly muttering the beat, sometimes intensely scrutinizing the score, was as much as treat as actually hearing him play it. His Chaconne turned out beautifully detailed and expressive, rightfully concluding this mini-concert as any additional work would have surely paled afterwards.
During the one-hour interview, which was interspersed by excerpts of some recordings of his, the guest of honor proved to be a genuinely witty, congenial and thoughtful conversationalist. Among other things, he remembered his first performance in that same space in 1945 (!), talked about how much Brahms’ piano concerto No 1 meant to him, and explained why his sudden infirmity at the peak of his soloist career was, in some way, a blessing in disguise as it allowed him to explore other paths in the music field such as conducting and teaching. The enlightening hour just flew by and before we knew it, it was time to leave the studio to the sound of his recording of Bach’s lovely “where sheep may safely graze”, the sweet little encore that often ends his regular concerts.