I was four years old when Leon Fleisher lost the use of his right hand.
To me, the name of Leon Fleisher is really just that – a name. Of course, his Beethoven and Brahms concerti recordings are, or should be, parts of every music lover’s collection. Of course I knew about his playing of the left hand piano repertoire, as well as his careers as conductor and teacher. But as a young music lover and music student, Fleisher remained for me a historic figure.
I had read with interest about his “come back” as a two-handed pianist with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Sergiu Comissiona in Franck’s Symphonic Variations, and I knew that he had done some performing of the standard repertoire since that occasion.
In the 1990’s, when Comissiona was music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Leon Fleisher came and was soloist in Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor. Of course I had to go.
I attended that concert with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation - anticipation because I would finally get to hear this legendary musical figure perform in person, and trepidation because I couldn’t help wondering how he would manage with this treacherously difficult piece lasting a good three quarter of an hour.
Fleisher came and played. And played it he did. It was a glorious and glowing performance of the concerto. I must add that I had a ten-second encounter with Fleisher backstage, but all I could manage was to stammer something to the effect of, “It’s an honour meeting you.”
What I remember was being so very moved, not just by the performance, but also by the courage it must have taken for him to do it. For any pianist, the Brahms concerto remains a formidable musical and technical challenge. But for someone who hadn’t been regularly performing for a couple of decades, it must have taken incredible determination, will, and an overwhelming love for the art of music. It is an experience that remains with me to this day.
Rest in peace, Leon Fleisher.