By Jacob Stockinger
Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.
By John W. Barker
There was a warm welcome back given to the fabled pianist Leon Fleisher (below) on Thursday noon at Mills Hall on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
At age 88, Fleisher is still a formidable performer, despite vicissitudes that would have wrecked many a career. Having risen to world-wide acclaim, in 1965 he was stricken with a condition that denied him the use of his right hand.
For decades, he continued performing in left-hand literature, and in conducting and teaching. But by 2003 he had managed to recover his right-hand capacity, and could resume activities as a “two-hander.”
It was in November of 2003, at the beginning of his recovery, that he appeared in Mills Hall with the Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer), playing the Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34, one of the pinnacles of the chamber music literature.
Fleisher recently offered to play here again, and in that very same Brahms work. His offer came when performance scheduling had already tied down regular evening slots, so the choice fell on a one-shot noonday date.
That was no deterrent to the jam-packed audience (below) that attended the free concert.
Fleisher is still a remarkable pianist for his age. He clearly knows this work well, and brings his long experience to it.
To be sure, Fleisher is no longer in the mold of the muscular performer that Brahms’ music requires. His playing in this work was no longer heroic or strongly pointed. There were some slips, and his less aggressive playing now made him go more for nuance than for power.
He was at his best in the slow movement, which emerged as beautifully thoughtful and nostalgic music. Still, the generosity of his presence and his long-standing ties with the quartet players made his appearance more than just an echo of past glories. (You can hear the slow movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
The Pro Arte gave a powerful and idiomatic delivery of its role, ready and able to match Fleisher as far as he would go. It was clear that playing with him here once again meant a lot to them. (Fleisher’s teacher, the famous Artur Schnabel, also played and recorded in the 1930s with earlier versions of the Pro Arte Quartet.)
The audience (below) responded with great enthusiasm to a memorable experience with one of the great musical personalities of our time.