Leon Fleisher’s Many Lives

I’ve been enjoying Leon Fleisher’s memoir (written with Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette), reading about his studies with Schnabel, his early successes, and his work as a conductor and teacher. But overshadowing the book is the catastrophe of a case of focal dystonia affecting his right hand and  preventing him from playing two-handed repertoire for decades. Although he eventually returned to two-handed playing, Fleisher spent years struggling to find a cure that would give him back the use of his hand, eventually finding a combination of Rolfing and botox injections, plus a good deal of struggle on his part, made it possible for him to return to at least partial use of his ailing hand.

Compared to the memoir of his fellow pianist Gary Graffman – I Really Should be Practicing (Fleisher jokes in his own book that colleagues teased Graffman about the sequel being called But It Wouldn’t Help) – Fleisher’s book is darker, and not just because of the hand problem. Fleisher’s three marriages, his troubled relationships with his children, and his affairs also color the narrative. Curiously, Graffman also came down with a similar hand problem, although later in life (and after his memoir was written).

Being a musician, I wished for more in-depth treatment of music in the book. There are chapters called “Master Classes”, each focusing on a different work, and while there are some intriguing details – for example, the treatment of a trill in the Brahms 1st Concerto –  some of this material is thin. Summarizing a discussion of the program behind the slow movement of the Beethoven 4th Concerto with “I think it was Emmanuel Ax who told me that. Whatever works for you. It’s all very good stuff.” is not what I would call profound. I shouldn’t have expected more in a book for the general reader, but the occasional flashes of insight left me still hungry.

Doubleday has a page with audio excerpts keyed to passages in the book – don’t miss the luminous illustration of the trill in the Brahms concerto as mentioned above. Carnegie Hall has a substantial series of videos with Fleisher coaching the Schubert sonatas. Alex Ross has an essay about those sessions.

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