Leon Fleisher in concert

Leon Fleisher

Leon Fleisher

Legendary pianist Leon Fleisher appeared in a rare recital Thursday evening at the William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival at the University of Maryland campus in College Park.  It was an emotional event for the many pianists present as Mr. Fleisher, now approaching his 84th birthday, entered the stage moving slowly and looking a bit frail.  Fleisher’s meteoric career began as a child prodigy, becoming at 9 a student of the great Artur Schnabel, followed by a First Prize at the Queen Elizabeth of Belgium Competition in 1952 and continuing upward throughout the 1950s and early 60s with ecstatic notices and a series of concerto recordings with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra that are still unsurpassed.  It all fell to earth in 1965 when a problem with the nerves in his right arm, diagnosed many years later as focal dystonia, rendered his fourth and fifth fingers useless.  Decades of often painful search for a cure followed while Mr. Fleisher ventured into conducting, and became a much beloved teacher at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, a position he took up in 1959 and still holds today.   There were flashes of hope along the way — I remember being glued to the television, practically holding my breath, while he played the Franck Symphonic Variations about 30 years ago.  Again about fifteen years later there were some performances, and then most encouragingly, in 2004, the release of his CD Leon Fleisher: Two Hands.  I heard him then, in a concert in a friend’s living room in New York, play Egon Petri’s transcription of J. S. Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze so beautifully that I had to wipe the tears from my eyes.  Whatever success in treatment there has been, however, doesn’t seem to last and the artist who appeared before a full auditorium to warm and appreciative applause last evening, did so with the fingers of his right hand visibly clenched.  He played, except for duets with his wife Katherine Jacobson, only left-hand repertoire.  Still, it was not so much how Mr. Fleisher played, though there was a craggily beautiful account of the Bach Chaconne transcribed for the left hand by Johnannes Brahms that began in spare black and white and then blossomed like a flower into warm hues at it went, but the fact that he did play, and in doing so gave us the opportunity to honor both the great achievements of his career, and the long struggle, never given up, to regain what he lost.  He seems to have made peace with his ordeal though, dispensing witty comments about the repertoire and speaking movingly about his long ago friendship with William Kapell.  If there was ever a bittersweet tinge to these memories — it was Fleisher’s emulation of his older friend’s fanatic practice regimen that probably led to his eventual disability — time has erased it so that only love and admiration remain.