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CD Review


Leon Fleisher, piano
Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra/André Cluytens
* Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra/Georg Ludwig Jochum
ICA Classics ICAC5121 61:03 Monaural
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These are magnificent performances which capture Leon Fleisher in his youthful prime. Now 85, Fleisher has carved out a fascinating career as concert pianist and teacher, interrupted by a serious hand-condition which simply ended up making him one of the world's greatest exponents of left-hand piano music. Although he is now playing two-handed again – in fact, he recorded the Mozart in 2009 – and recorded the Beethoven in the sixties with George Szell, this disc is by no means unimportant. It makes for not only a fine 85th birthday present to the pianist, but a very worthy addition to your home.

Fleisher was always a marvelous Beethoven interpreter, and so was André Cluytens. Nobody will mistake the latter for Szell; the heavier, fuller sound of his Cologne forces contrasts markedly with the former's lean and chamber-like approach. Still, this is a valid way to play Beethoven too, and in any event the results are no less incisive or convincing. Apparently, this particular partnership was tense, and the liner notes also refer to some dropped notes (corrected here) and nerves on the part of the pianist in particular. Try to hear any of that. The performance is a joy, with Fleisher on freewheeling form, and Cluytens drawing some lovely playing from his charges. Recorded in very clear mono that flatters the piano nicely, this can't be instantly recommended over any of the later stereo cycle, but it is a fantastic release all the same.

Like his older brother Eugen, Georg Ludwig Jochum was especially known for the German repertoire the family would have been raised on. Based on the evidence here, he was a fine conductor in his own right (I must confess I assumed his more famous sibling was at the helm). Recorded in 1957, three years before the Beethoven, it shows everyone at their very best. These Cologne forces play slightly less well for Jochum than for Cluytens, yet there a very solid framework for Fleisher to work within. Good thing, too; the pianist is the star of the show. His contributions shape an engagingly poetic performance that never for once loses a sense of poise or elegance. The slow movement is exceptional, with gorgeously phrased melodies from Fleisher and a warm and pleasing enough sound from the orchestral support. Credit Jochum for keeping the textures reasonably clear and never stepping on his soloist. By no means is this period practice, and the strings are sometimes scrappy here and there. That matters very little. The Mozart is also in very fine mono sound. Were the orchestral details outstanding as opposed to very good, and were either or both concertos in stereo, this would be a serious contender for anybody's collection. As it stands, the artistic merit of this issue is substantial enough to interest piano fans and historical collectors alike. A very important addition to the Fleisher discography!

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman