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Music Review: Pianist Leon Fleisher performs with the National Philharmonic Orchestra

Sunday, January 31, 2010; 11:39 PM

Downsized by a winter storm, the Saturday night audience at Strathmore concert hall cheered as pianist Leon Fleisher walked onto the stage. Since the mid-'90s, the 81-year-old has made a spectacular hard-won comeback, acclaimed by audiences and critics alike after 30 years seeking a cure for a repetitive stress injury that disabled his right hand.

He gave a sprightly account of Prokofiev's firmly neoclassical Piano Concerto (for the left hand), Op. 53, No. 4. Directed by Piotr Gajewski, the National Philharmonic Orchestra responded with equal verve. In the concerto's outer movements, Fleisher cavorted around the keyboard, engaging the orchestra in a whimsical game of tag.

Spare, diaphanous textures skirting tonality continued into the Andante, with Fleisher passionately probing Prokofiev's bittersweet, angular lyricism. Fleisher and the orchestra trod stealthily through the ominous third movement, then shifted gears for a sardonic march.

The pianist encored -- using both hands -- with reverent homage to Bach's "Sheep May Safely Graze" (from Cantata No. 208 ).

The orchestra prefaced the Prokofiev with an imaginative performance of Mussorgsky's spooky tone poem "Night on Bald Mountain," in Rimsky-Korsakov's rearrangement. The piece is a concatenation of malevolent beings, reveling in the grotesque, its terror and darkness voiced in clustered orchestral tone-colors. For the finale, Gajewski plunged heartily into Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6, the "Pathetique," underscoring its emotional sweep as broad as the Russian steppes.

-- Cecelia Porter

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