Leon Fleisher, one of the world’s greatest Brahms interpreters, has died aged 92. According to his son Julian, he died of cancer in a Baltimore hospice.
Born in San Francisco in 1928, Fleisher made his debut at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic at 16. Known as an impeccably hardworking and prolific pianist, he rose to fame with his interpretations of Brahms and Beethoven concertos recorded on Columbia Masterworks with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra in the late 1950s and early ’60s.
Beyond his contributions to the world stage, Fleisher made a significant impact on Canadian music. He served as Distinguished Artist in Residence at Toronto’s Conservatory of Music for more than 30 years and was named Ihnatowycz Chair in Piano at The Glenn Gould School where he taught regularly. He made his Koerner Hall debut playing with and conducting the Royal Conservatory Orchestra on November 20, 2009. His last recital in Koerner Hall was on April 3, 2011.
Fleisher’s tone was exact, yet warm, making him an ideal vehicle for 19th-century Viennese composers Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert. He also contributed unique takes interpretations of Rachmaninoff, Debussy and Liszt, and was particularly fond of contemporary American composers Roger Sessions and Aaron Copland.
Critic Tim Page described Fleisher’s artistry as “a bejewelled and expressive tone, a sure intellectual command of musical form, and an acute sensitivity to whatever he played.”
His recordings, notably with Szell, have become regarded as the finest interpretations of Brahms concerti ever set to record.
At age 37, Fleisher developed a condition that was later found to be focal dystonia, which he attributed to a heavy practice regiment.
The condition resulted in his two fingers of his right-hand curling inward, preventing him from performing. The disorder sparked an existential crisis for the concert pianist, and he became suicidal. His marriage disintegrated, and he withdrew from touring for two years.
“The initial problem was a very stupid kind of overwork,” Mr. Fleisher said in 1996. “I see kids still falling into this, and there are many reasons for it. The perfection that they’re bombarded with from recordings. The kind of sound a Horowitz produced, which is wonderful, but people don’t realize that he had his technician work very hard on the piano, so the piano itself helped. So when kids go to an acoustically dead hall, and get a dead piano, and try to make these Horowitz kinds of sounds, they end up brutalizing themselves.”
After mixed attempts at treatment, Fleisher was resilient, focusing on developing repertoire for the left-hand from Ravel and Prokofiev. He commissioned new works for the left-hand from American composers. He also helped launch Washington’s Theater Chamber Players, began mentoring and teaching, and conducting with orchestras in Baltimore and Annapolis.
Instead of disparaging his focal dystonia, he found his relationship with music deepened. In an interview with the National Public Radio, he said he suddenly came to the realization that his connection with music was greater than just as a two-handed piano player.
An ill-wind blew when he developed carpal tunnel from holding the conducting baton too tightly. This led to his receiving surgery and his eventual return to the piano for two hands in 1995.
“When I had that release [surgery], that seemed to be so helpful I was able to play […] The drought was over,” he said in a 2006 Oscar-nominated video documentary interview Two Hands: The Leon Fleisher Story.
Post-surgery, Fleisher received a mix of Botox and massage treatments, which further helped him gain the dexterity necessary for a triumphant return to performing repertoire for two hands. He made a return to Carnegie Hall in 2003, and in 2004, released Two Hands, his first album in over 41 years.
Looking back on his career, what becomes clear is that Fleisher’s lifelong resilience has become just as important to his artistry as his playing.
“If I had my life to live over, I don’t think that I’d do anything differently.”
[Last updated August 4, 2020.]