When the legendary pianist Leon Fleisher lost the use of his right hand in the early 1960s, putting an end to any ordinary performing career, the composer Dina Koston urged him to take up conducting instead. The advice led to a new direction for Fleisher and a close and lasting friendship with Koston — a friendship that was palpable on Thursday night at the Library of Congress, where Fleisher mounted a deeply-felt tribute to Koston that ranged from the profundities of Bach to some cheerfully unbuttoned vocal music by Gyorgi Ligeti.
The evening opened with Fleisher (who regained the use of his right hand about 10 years ago) performing “Messages” for solo piano, a piece Koston wrote for him shortly before she died in 2009. It’s a pensive, richly-colored set of variations, deeply personal and among Koston’s more impressive works, and Fleisher played it with an almost unbearable sense of love and respect; you felt as if you were listening in on an intimate communion between the two.
The affection continued with Brahms’s “Liebeslieder Waltzes for voices and piano, four hands, op. 52,” for which Fleisher was joined by his wife, Katherine Jacobson Fleisher, and four singers from the Peabody Institute. The performance never quite achieved that miraculous glow that you look for in Brahms, but there was much admirable singing; tenor Jayson Greenberg, who did most of the heavy lifting, was particularly impressive.
But the most indelible moments of the evening came when Fleisher performed the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita for unaccompanied violin in D minor, transcribed by Brahms as a piano work for the left hand. His right arm motionless at his side, Fleisher turned in an absolutely spellbinding performance that built steadily, with a kind of distilled, august power, to a breathtaking climax. At 83, Fleisher’s technique may not be as immaculate as it once was, but his musicianship — as the Bach proved — is nothing short of Olympian.
The evening closed on a comic note, with two freewheeling works by Ligeti from the early 1960s. “Aventures” and “Nouvelles Aventures” are a little cartoonish to 21st-century ears but great fun nonetheless, as three vocalists squeak, laugh, sob, hiss, growl and otherwise avoid anything like traditional singing, over an instrumental background of crashing glass, popping paper bags and newspapers being carefully torn to shreds. Kudos to soprano Bonnie Lander, mezzo-soprano Diane Schaming and baritone James Rogers, who turned in gleefully uninhibited performances while Fleisher led the ensemble through this wonderful stuff with deadpan aplomb.
Brookes is a freelance writer.