An article on Leon Fleisher in yesterday's Style section mistakenly identified neurological surgery on the pianist's hand as neurological surgery on his brain. (Publishhed 01/20/96)

The saga of America's first generation of famous classical pianists is an unhappy one. William Kapell -- the oldest and, in some ways, the most brilliant of the group -- was killed in a freakish plane crash at the age of 31 in 1953. Van Cliburn now seems content to play little more than his signature piece, the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto, and that only on rare occasions. Meanwhile, Byron Janis, Gary Graffman and Leon Fleisher were all forced to curtail their performing by mysterious hand problems at what should have been the peaks of their careers.

Fleisher's story is especially poignant, for some recordings he made in the 1950s and early '60s suggest that he had it all: a technique that knew no difficulties, a bejeweled and expressive tone, a sure intellectual command of musical form, and acute sensitivity to whatever he played. Fleisher made his formal debut in 1944 at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic, won the prestigious Queen Elizabeth of Belgium International Music Competition in 1952, played in the leading concert halls throughout the world and was generally accepted as one of the world's best young pianists.

And then, in 1965, at the age of 37, damaged, miserable and no longer able to control his right hand, he canceled all future engagements and withdrew from performing.

Now for some good news. Last Saturday, the 67-year-old Fleisher returned to Carnegie Hall for his first two-handed concert there in more than 37 years (he has made a number of appearances playing with left hand alone). And this Saturday and Sunday in Washington, he will accompany soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson in Robert Schumann's song cycle "Frauenliebe und Leben" and participate in a performance of Brahms's Piano Quartet in G Minor, Op. 25, with Naoko Tanaka, Robert Dan and Evelyn Elsing, in a program presented by the Theater Chamber Players. (Saturday's concert takes place at 7:30 in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater; the Sunday matinee will be played at 3:30 in the Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church, 6601 Bradley Blvd., Bethesda.)

Fleisher's gradual (and by no means wholehearted) return to two-hand performance has been carefully planned. He played Mozart's Piano Concerto in A, K. 414 -- the same piece just performed at Carnegie Hall -- with the Theater Chamber Players last April at the Terrace Theater, but, at Fleisher's insistence, there was an absolute minimum of publicity. Similar performances in Cleveland and at Tanglewood have been equally discreet.

"This is all part of an ongoing process," Fleisher said in an interview two days before the Carnegie concert. "I'm gaining strength and flexibility every week, but I don't know just how far I can go with it. For the moment, I'm just grateful to be able to play whatever I can, whenever I can."

What happened to Leon Fleisher? Why did he have to give up performing for so long? "Well, my right arm basically turned to stone," he said. "In the early 1960s I was practicing seven or eight hours a day already, and when I noticed some weakness in my right arm, I only practiced harder. It was all wrong. I never allowed my muscles to decontract, and as a result I essentially ruined my arm."

Fleisher was an early victim of what is now known as repetitive strain injury -- a sort of "stripping of the gears" that can affect people who overuse certain muscles in the same pattern for hours on end. Fleisher now refers to his youthful manner of practicing as "pumping ivory."

"Back then, we knew nothing about repetitive stress," Fleisher said. "I saw doctors, I saw hypnotists, and nothing worked. There was no explanation. No answer at all. I just couldn't play anymore. Can you imagine what that was like?"

At the time he was afflicted, Fleisher had been preparing to leave on an ambitious State Department-sponsored tour of Western Europe and the Soviet Union with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. Depressed and desperate, he dropped out of the tour and concentrated his efforts on teaching (he had been appointed to the Andrew W. Mellon Chair at Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory in 1959).

During the next 17 years, he underwent a series of muscle-function and nerve-conduction tests, several different therapies and, finally, brain surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. In the fall of 1982, by force of will, he played Cesar Franck's Symphonic Variations with the Baltimore Symphony for the opening of the new Meyerhoff Concert Hall. Although the reviews were respectful -- and the audience response was overwhelming -- Fleisher realized that he could use his right hand for only a short time, that it was simply too painful for him to endure long practice and performing sessions.

And so he resigned himself to a curtailed musical life -- teaching at Peabody and performing piano music for the left hand alone. (There is a surprising amount of this material, by the way. The Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein lost his right arm during World War I; Maurice Ravel, Serge Prokofiev, Benjamin Britten and Franz Schmidt are only a few of the composers who wrote works to accommodate his disability.)

In 1968, in tandem with composer and pianist Dina Koston, Fleisher founded the Theater Chamber Players in Washington. Since then, he has pursued a new career as a conductor (he has made guest appearances with the Boston Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony, and in the 1988-89 season, he conducted Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" for the Baltimore Opera). In 1986 he was appointed artistic director of the Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Mass.

It has been, by any standards, a rich musical life. Still, those who love the piano and its repertory have dreamed of a full recovery for Fleisher. His old recordings -- a transcendent performance of the Schubert B-flat Sonata, D. 960, collaborations with Szell and Cleveland on the concertos of Beethoven and Brahms -- have long been highly sought-after collector's items. (Some of these have been reissued on compact disc and cassette on the Sony Classical label.)

Fleisher credits an increasingly popular technique called Rolfing -- a form of tissue manipulation discovered in 1940 by a biochemist named Ida Rolf -- for his partial recovery. He compares it to a "massage in slow motion." "The therapist searches out points of contraction in the muscle and then applies pressure in such a way as to stretch out the fibers. If the muscle is healthy, there should be no pain; if there is pain, something is wrong. When you resist, you tighten up, but once you give in, the pain will likely resolve itself and disappear."

It was an excited and somewhat apprehensive audience, filled with music lovers of all stripes, that greeted Fleisher at Carnegie Hall Saturday for his appearance with the Orchestra of St. Luke's, under the direction of Andre Previn. Before the show, Fleisher had acknowledged some anxiety about the visibility of this particular platform: "From the wings to the piano at Carnegie Hall is the longest walk in the world," he said.

Still, 52 years after his Carnegie debut and almost four decades since he last played there unimpaired, Fleisher made the "long walk" briskly, acknowledged the applause with professional calm and took his place at the house Steinway. He sat with his back to the audience, concentrating intently as Previn lifted his baton and began the concerto. And then, after one of those lithe, immaculate Mozartean orchestral introductions that are, paradoxically, both propulsive and serene, Fleisher began to play.

The listener was immediately impressed by the pearly beauty of Fleisher's sound -- as gentle as it was firm, ruminative and intensely poetic yet without any smearing of the melodic line. I would like to be able to report that the legendary right hand is just as good as new. It isn't, but such is the skill with which Fleisher uses it that one was perfectly willing to suspend disbelief. Indeed, I would rather listen to Fleisher, even in his current, delicate shape, than to most other pianists now before the public.

What Fleisher seems to have done is to find a way of working around his disability. He has not necessarily conquered; rather, he has adapted. He now uses his right shoulder more than is customary; there is some residual stiffness in his right arm; and he leans deeply into the keyboard as he plays, raising his wrist in a manner that would shock some orthodox piano teachers. Then again, it might be argued that orthodox training got Fleisher into this mess in the first place; the old joke about the kid asking a policeman how to get to Carnegie Hall (answer: practice, practice, practice) takes on a bitter irony in this case.

The Mozart Concerto in A does not make the physical demands that, say, a concerto by Rachmaninoff does; the pianist does not have to produce any Niagaras of sheer piano tone. And yet the economy of means, the clarity and deceptive simplicity of Mozart's writing, presents difficulties of its own. If Fleisher experienced some technical challenges on Saturday, he met Mozart's musical challenges splendidly. And those, finally, are the great test.

"I could have wished the performance to have been better than it was," Fleisher said yesterday. "The pressures of the occasion were a little rough on me. But I went to the piano the next day and I wasn't harmed by the concert. Indeed, I played better than I had the night before. And since then, I've had my first rehearsal of the Brahms Quartet and it went very well. Everything is definitely on an upward curve."

Fleisher says he hopes to achieve a "gradual, progressive increase in my repertory." "I plan to play the Brahms D Minor Concerto with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony in September and then the Brahms B-flat Minor Concerto with Daniel Barenboim in 1997," he said. "There's been some discussion of a Beethoven G Major Concerto with Claudio Abbado and Berlin. We'll see how it goes."

In the meantime, Fleisher will continue his teaching, continue playing the left-handed repertory, continue conducting -- and practice carefully and sparingly.

"We all wanted to be so strong, and it was all a terrible mistake. We all wanted to be like Vladimir Horowitz, to have that killer technique. And we harmed ourselves enormously in the process. I think Gary {Graffman} suffered from repetitive stress. Byron {Janis} had some shoulder complications, as I understand it, but it wouldn't surprise me if there was an element of repetitive stress there."

The late Canadian pianist Glenn Gould was often criticized as eccentric for his insistence upon running his arms under hot and cold water immediately after practicing and before concerts. "Glenn Gould was utterly brilliant in that regard," Fleisher said. "He figured it all out. That's exactly what we should have all been doing -- anything to bring that circulation back, anything to loosen the tension. But who knew?" CAPTION: Leon Fleisher several years before he stopped performing publicly, above, and in 1990. "I just couldn't play anymore," he says of his repetitive strain injury. "Can you imagine what that was like?" CAPTION: Leon Fleisher says that as far as his return to the concert stage is concerned, "everything is definitely on an upward curve."