Leon Fleisher, Schubert — and Simplicity

I go to piano recitals as much for insights on music making as I do for the music itself. Leon Fleisher gave a recital recently that was rewarding on both counts. The recital, along with violinist Jaime Laredo, featured the four piano-and-violin sonatas of the twenty-year-old Franz Schubert, which like so much of what Schubert wrote are miracles of simple, lyric beauty.

Chamber music often brings out the best in musicians if for no other reason than that it obliges them, as an ensemble of often highly dissimilar individuals, to come together with the common goal of rendering the intentions of the composer with a single voice. Achieving this goal, which requires personal self-effacement in pursuit of an ideal, is often thwarted in solo recitals where the performer will occasionally stray from his absorption with the music and succumb to the impulse to impress the audience with his own technical or presumed musical prowess. In their dual recital Leon Fleisher and Jaime Laredo managed to realize Schubert’s intentions by choosing SIMPLICITY as a unifying characteristic! This aspect of their playing recalled an aphorism of my own teacher and mentor, Aube Tzerko, who, like Leon Fleisher, studied with Artur Schnabel: “In determining phrasing, try the simplest solution first. It is often the best.” Playing with simplicity not only helped Fleisher and Laredo arrive at a common vision between them, but it also helped them bring off each piece as Schubert almost certainly intended, that is, as a sublime, ambling succession of lyrical motives, with only the simplest of end-of-phrase ritards or barely noticeable breathing pauses to set them off, one from the other.

The concept of simplicity was also apparent in the physical aspect of Leon Fleisher’s playing. In this regard Fleisher’s playing called to mind, by simple force of contrast with that of certain other concert pianists, just how labored and even tortured much classical piano playing can be. As Fleisher stared intently at the score, his bearing was one of relaxed stillness, with a complete absence of grandiose gestures of any kind, whether in negotiating the keyboard or in depressing the keys.