Sunday, December 8, 2013


Severance Hall
December 5

A living symbol of the Szell era and overcoming adversity.

It would be hard to imagine a moment more freighted with history than Leon Fleisherʼs entrance onstage at Severance Hall on Thursday night. The musicians acknowledged it immediately, tapping their bows and applauding Fleisher as he was making his way to the podium, lauding him before he had conducted a single note.

The Cleveland Orchestra has special relationships with many musicians, but none with the longevity of Fleisher, a keyboard wunderkind who gave his first performance with the orchestra in October 1946. George Szell was conducting and over the next two decades adopted Fleisher as his go-to pianist, making a series of recordings with him that include definitive versions of the Brahms and Beethoven piano concertos.

Fleisherʼs career seemed over in 1965, when two fingers on his right hand froze. Undaunted, he started treatment while developing a left-handed performance repertoire and a second career as a conductor. When he had recovered enough to play two-handed again, his first performance was with the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall (Mozartʼs Piano Concerto No. 12 in A major, Christoph von Dohnányi conducting, April 1995).

So Fleisher embodied both an institutional legend and personal triumph over adversity when he took the stage. He was scheduled to conduct another virtuoso pianist, Mitsuko Uchida, in two Beethoven concertos. But Uchida is nursing a thumb injury, so she was replaced by Jonathan Biss, 33, who studied with Fleisher at the Curtis Institute and has built a successful career as both a concert pianist and recital artist.

The program opened with Mendelssohnʼs Hebrides overture, which gave Fleisher a chance to show that he knows how to run an orchestra. He pulled off some smooth technical moves and gave the piece character, emphasizing tonal and textural contrasts and putting some pop in the familiar melody. Fleisher seemed to linger a bit in the sole mournful passage, perhaps reflecting his opening dedication of the concert to Nelson Mandela.

In replacing Uchida, Biss took on a Herculean load – Beethovenʼs Piano Concerto No 2 before intermission, and Piano Concerto No. 3 after. The formidable program highlighted both his strengths and weaknesses.

Stronger solo.
Biss is an exceptionally fluid player who can glide through impossibly complicated passages, then shift into slow motion to craft elegant, achingly beautiful solo lines. Those were his strongest moments of the night – when he played alone and was free (especially in the No. 2 cadenzas) to shape the sound and drop single notes like flower petals, breathtakingly soft and sensitive. In the classic style of a recitalist, he seemed to go into another world during his solos, following a muse that only he can hear.

This works fine in recital, but less well in orchestral performances, where the soloist and orchestra are supposed to be in dialogue. Or at least listening to each other. In No. 2, Biss was so focused on ending each of his solo passages with a fortissimo bang, his timing was off. Instead of being seamless, the handoffs overlapped, literally bumping into each other. At times, it seemed like Biss and the orchestra were playing separate pieces – not in how they sounded, but in his complete detachment.

That was surprising, given the circumstances. A substitute soloist would normally defer to the orchestra, especially with his mentor conducting it. Biss is gifted enough to get away with a different approach, but it lacks the transcendence that a player like Uchida achieves by working with the orchestra – indeed, conducting it herself from the keyboard in some performances to achieve pinpoint precision and present a unified voice.

However, this orchestra could play Beethoven in its sleep, and in Fleisher's hands the music had a commanding, authoritative tone, reminiscent of Szell. It was probably unrealistic to hope for a reprise of the magic that Szell and Fleisher were able to create together, but this certainly could have been a stronger collaboration. As a pianist in the audience noted after Biss bowed and left without an encore, “If he had played an unaccompanied solo, that would have been redundant.”

For more on Jonathan Biss:

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