English profiles

Amsterdam, 10 March 2006

An interview with a legendary pianist like Leon Fleisher is not something you should pass up.. When I went to ask the master after his concert, one day prior to the interview, it proved difficult to find the right moment, until he came with the solution. What about the next day (Friday) at 12.00 am at the Concertgebouw? Hmmm, very tempting, but that was during my office hours at work! But then again, how often would I get this chance again? Thank God I grabbed the opportunity and I managed to get a few hours off from work to quickly go to Amsterdam. I met mr Fleisher in a small room underneath the stage of the main hall of the Concertgebouw, that just offered enough room for a grand piano and two chairs..  

Willem Boone (WB): You have played a lot of left hand repertoire. Do you now pay more attention to your left hand when you play two hand repertoire?

Leon Fleisher (LF): No, I always did. The left hand is the fundament of the music!

WB: The programme of last night’s performance said the Hindemith Klaviermusik mit Orchester you played was a world premiere, does that mean that you were the first pianist who ever played this piece?

LF: No,it was a Dutch premiere instead of a world premiere! , but it has a fascinating story to it. Paul Wittgenstein commissioned the piece in 1923 and nobody could find a trace of it, although it existed in the Hindemith Verzeichniss. 3 years ago, his widow died. They lived in a farm in Pennsylvania and his children found a copy in a closet, along with a lock of Beethoven’s hair, which is weird, because that would make him Samson... but it could be true, since Wittgenstein was an avid collector. The piece was lost since 1923 and the copy was not the manuscript of Hindemith.  There are sketch books in Hindemith’s hand with sketches of the piece that match, as I noticed when I had the chance to see them in Frankfurt.

WB: When was the piece performed for the first time?

LF: One year ago, in December 2004. I played with the Berlin Phillharmonic Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle.

WB: Did you play it more often?

LF: Yes, I also gave performances of it in San Francisco, Vienna, Lissabon and Prague.

WB: Are there more pianists who play it?

LF: I think I am still the only one...

WB: Wittgenstein didn’t play it after he received the score....

LF: He was a difficult man who had terrible fights with Ravel. He said he hadn’t paid all that money for an orchestral piece. He never performed the Prokofiev 4th concerto, which he also commissioned, either and even locked it up. It wasn’t performed until the second world war. Siegfried Rapp, a pianist who had only one arm, just like Wittgenstein, was the first one who managed to persuade Mme Prokofiev to unlock the safe where the score was kept. It is a wonderful piece, Prokofiev wrote it in Paris.

WB: I heard a few reminiscences of the second concerto (the scherzo) last night

LF: It’s a different piece. The 4th concerto has an airiness, a particular lightness, whereas the second  concerto is very Russian. The left hand concerto ends with a reminiscence of the 1st movement. It takes great courage to write an ending that fades away and almost evaporates...

WB: It has been said that Wittgenstein wasn’t a very good pianist, is that true?

LF: No, he wasn’t a particularly good pianist, but thank god, he was wealthy! He came from one of the richest families in Vienna. His brother Ludwig was a famous philosopher. They weren’t a happy family though, two of his brothers committed suicide...

WB: Do you know the recording that exists of the Ravel Left hand concerto by Wittgenstein?

LF: It’s from the late 30’s and it’s rather disappointing.

WB: Is it true that Cortot made a two hand version of it?

LF: I heard that story... The Ravel is incredibly written for the left hand. One of his goals was that you wouldn’t discern anything unusual if you listened with your eyes closed.

WB: There are rumours that pianists sometimes cheat during recording sessions and use their right hand  to play awkward notes?

LF: I don’t think so. In public, you would be discovered! The writing is not awkward. You have to sit higher at the keyboard to get to the treble. The center of gravity shifts to your right buttock.

WB: Do you consider the Ravel as the biggest masterwork of left hand compositions?

LF: That’s undeniable. It’s one of his greatest works, but the other pieces for piano and orchestra are masterworks in their own right, for instance Britten’s Diversions on a theme. The Hindemith is a wonderful piece, it’s written in the Concerto grosso style. There is an isolation that comes with the slow movement. He was a man of great wit who had a wonderful sense of humour. The ostinato is repeated every three bars, there are four quarter notes per bar, that would make twelve tones, but no, he wrote an eleven tone row. And you know, he was a great fan of model trains! There is a picture of Schnabel and him lying on the floor playing with model trains.

WB: Are there any influences of Bartok in the Hindemith piece?

LF: I couldn’t say. Hindemith used the theme of the slow movement in a string quartet, as if he wanted to say: “I use the material in another composition if Wittgenstein doesn’t want to play it”. Wittgenstein paid 1000 dollars for it, which was an enormous amount at the time. He insisted on keeping the manuscript, that’s why nobody else could play it. Then he had a copy made of the original. The story goes that Mme Wittgenstein was a little gaga at the end of her life and used it to light the fire in her farm....

WB: But there was the copy....

LF: Thank God!

WB: Was Hindemith a pianist?

LF: He played the viola, but also the piano and he conducted. There was a piano quartet at the time with Schnabel on the piano, Flesch on the violin, Hindemith on the viola and Casals on the cello! Not bad, I would buy a ticket to that.....

WB: Are there actually any pieces for the right hand alone?

LF: No. The left hand is peculiarly made for the piano. The base line is the most important. You can play chords and tap out the melody with the thumb, but the reverse is not possible. It is a challenge to write for the left hand alone. Sometimes when composers are given limitations, the greatest creativity comes out. I was lucky to have works written for me. Lukas Foss wrote a concerto for me. And Gunther Schuller wrote a concerto for three hands on two pianos, one part for two hands and the other part for me. There is also a fascinating piece by William Bolcom, that was commissioned by the conductor David Zinman. He would have loved to ask Bartok, but he was dead. Bolcom was a student of Milhaud and followed an example of his teacher. He composed two different concertos, one for Gary Graffmann and half of the orchestra, the other one for me and the other half of the orchestra. They can be played together and separately. Milhaud did the same with the 13th and 14th string quartet. It’s interesting to play all three concertos in the same programme.

WB: Did you do that?

LF: Yes, we did it in New York and Philadelphia.

WB: Is there a recording of this? That would be interesting!

LF: No, the business has deteriorated.

WB: When did you start playing with two hands again?

LF: In the mid 90’s.

WB: How did you find out that you still could?

LF: I spent all those forty years trying. I was looking for therapies and went from western medicine to eastern medicine to northern to southern.. eventually I found two modalities. One is a physical therapy that is called rolfing, it’s a powerful manipulation of a tissue that is contracted. As of 1996, I get botox injections at the National Institute of Health outside Washington. Botox weakens the muscles a tad and it enables me to play with two hands again.

WB: How did you feel when you played with two hands again?

LF: Ecstatic!

WB: Did you still have the ability in your right hand?

LF: I tried every day, my muscles didn’t atrophy. I suffered from dystonia, a neurological movement disorder. There are two sorts, genetic or specific, what I have. Focal distonia means one specific spot in the body. French horn players get it in the lip and there Botox won’t help! There are 10,000 musicians who suffer from this.

WB: Was it just bad luck in your case?

LF: They don’t know what causes it. They don’t have a cure for it. Botox just relieves the symptons.

WB: You played Brahms 1st concerto again, isn’t that a particularly taxing piece?

LF: I have more problems with scales... Brahms’s writing is more chordal, which causes no problems for me. I also did a new recording of the Piano Quintet with the Emerson Quartet.

WB: Don’t the trills in the 1st movement of the First Concerto require tremendous rotation power in the hands?

LF: Not if you know how to do them. Scales are problematic for me now.

WB: Because they require evenness?

LF: Yes, exactly, but I constantly experiment. I also took up Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto and Brahms’s second concerto.

WB: You re-recorded Schubert’s last sonata the other day, is there any particular reason you choose this sonata?

LF: It’s a favorite piece of mine..

WB: The programme of last night mentioned that you played these concertos with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam more than fifty years ago, do you still remember these performances?

LF: Oh yes, they were very happy experiences, I did both Brahms concertos with Pierre Monteux and Beethoven’s G-major concerto with Van Beinum.

WB: Szell was notorious in Amsterdam as a conductor (I tried to explain a Dutch pun; members of the orchestra used to say they had “Szellstraf”, szell= jail, straf = punishment)

LF: He was not easy to make music with, because his standards were so high. He expected everybody to adhere to his standards, but I got along fine with him. I don’t know what is says about me.... Maybe because he adored my teacher Schnabel. And for some reason he liked my playing! I was the first soloist he had in Cleveland. He asked me to do the whole repertoire with his orchestra, the five Beethoven Concertos, Mozart K 503, the Rachmaninov Paganini Rhapsody, the Grieg and Schumann concertos, both Brahms concertos..

WB: I remember a funny story when André Previn met Szell and was asked to play the Strauss Burleske, although there was no piano. Previn asked Szell how he was supposed to do this and Szell ordered him to play on the table....

LF: And André’s reply was that he never played this table before....

WB: You taught a lot of students, would you accept any student?

LF: No, of course not, only those who are highly talented and understand my language. I had some very gifted students like Yefim Bronfman and young pianist, Jonathan Biss, who will make his debut in the Meesterpianisten series in Amsterdam next season.

WB: Would you accept someone like Lang Lang if he sought for your advice?

LF: He has played for me several times.

© Willem Boone 2006