Remember the days when you bought a new recording and it quickly became the soundtrack for your life, something you played over and over again, in all sorts of moods, at all hours of the day or night? After a certain age, this doesn't happen very often: We are too busy, or too blase, or too "experienced" to lapse into such single-minded devotion. And yet the past three weeks of my life have belonged (the word is not too strong) to pianist Leon Fleisher's radiant new album, "Two Hands," on Vanguard Classics.
Why "Two Hands"? Therein lies a story. Four decades ago, Fleisher was forced to curtail what had been a brilliant performing career when, as he described it to The Washington Post in 1996, his right arm "turned to stone." The pianist, now 76, blamed his condition on too much of what he called "pumping ivory": "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."
The condition was eventually diagnosed as dystonia, a neurological movement disorder, but that explanation came much later. At the time, all that was clear to Fleisher was the fact that he could no longer play. "We knew nothing about repetitive stress syndrome in those days. I saw doctors, I saw hypnotists, and nothing worked. There was no explanation, no answer at all. I just couldn't play anymore."
It was nothing less than an artistic calamity. Fleisher had been one of the great pianists of his time, recognized as such from his mid-teens. He combined a bejeweled and expressive tone, a sure intellectual command of musical form and an acutely sensitive responsiveness to whatever he played. (His old recordings from the 1950s and early 1960s, many of which have been reissued, are rightly prized.)
After a period of despondency, Fleisher realized that, as he put it, he loved music more than he loved the piano, and he found other ways to serve the art -- teaching at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, making occasional appearances as a guest conductor, playing works for the left hand alone (of which there are a surprising number), and serving as the artistic director of the Tanglewood Music Center for more than a decade.
Still, he never quite gave up hope that he might be able to play the piano again -- with both hands. In the past couple of years, he underwent treatment with botulinum toxin, or Botox, at the National Institutes of Health. This radical therapy finally allowed the tension in his muscles to relax and permitted his fingers, long crabbed, to stretch out to their full length again. Now Fleisher has begun to resume his career, with concert dates in New York and a performance of Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra scheduled for this fall.
But the first fruit is "Two Hands," a disc that contains miniatures by Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, Chopin and Debussy, followed by the gigantic Sonata in B-flat (D. 960) by Franz Schubert. All sentiment, all rooting-for-the-underdog, all yearning-for-the-happy-ending set aside, the result is a magnificent album that would make or enhance the reputation of any pianist now before the public.
Two Bach transcriptions begin the disc -- Myra Hess's arrangement of "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," followed by Egon Petri's version of "Sheep May Safely Graze." The latter, especially, is of unearthly beauty, a sweetly seraphic evocation of a tranquil Elysium where nothing can go wrong. Fleisher brings both rigor and poetry to two works by Chopin -- the rarely played Mazurka in C-sharp Minor (Op. 50, No. 3) and the much more familiar Nocturne in D-flat (Op. 27, No. 2). Scarlatti's Sonata in E was a favorite of the late Vladimir Horowitz: It is both assertively martial and coyly charming, a rare combination. And Fleisher gives us a refreshingly dry-eyed, clearheaded rendition of Debussy's "Clair de Lune," emphasizing the composer's exceedingly pretty melody as well as his more celebrated nuances and shadows.
The album closes with the Schubert sonata, that luminous masterpiece written on the threshold of death. Listening to it is a little like watching clouds chase each other across the sky: The sonata seems a sun-splashed succession of transitory light and darkness perceived from heights where light and darkness have ceased to matter. Fleisher trusts the music enough to play it without italics. He approaches the sonata as an enlightened literalist, from the haunting, long-ago melody that opens the work (interrupted repeatedly by ethereal bass trills) through the skittering, scampering closing moments, when Schubert has said what he wants to say and suddenly ends everything in a flurry of octaves. I can pay this performance no higher compliment than to say that it is even more penetrating and persuasive than the version Fleisher recorded for Columbia, almost half a century ago.
Fleisher has described his return to playing with two hands as "a state of grace." "It's a state of ecstasy," he said. "It's wonderful." The same words apply to this album.