Lemonade for the Left Hand
It happened during an earlier August. I remember being excited by the title of the new recording and the photo on the cover of the CD booklet back in 2004.
It was called Two Hands (Vanguard 1551). Sure enough, the photo was a close-up of pianist Leon Fleisher’s right hand on the keyboard, with the fingers of his left hand gently resting upon it. I hadn’t heard at the time that he returned to playing the piano with both hands. The recording notes recounted the story of his battle with dystonia and the treatments he underwent to enable him to use his right hand as he had early in his piano career.
I remember being excited for him and inspired once again. I say “once again” because years before, when he talked about responding to the inability to use his right hand, he blew me away. It’s almost as if he embraced with his spirit what he couldn’t embrace with his right hand and was determined to explore and present hundreds of pieces written for the left hand alone with all the musicianship he had in him. I’ll never forget that.
I’ve mentioned Fleisher’s story from time to time over the years. It came to mind last week when I learned – a bit after the fact – that Leon Fleisher died on August 2nd at age 92. In tribute to him, I had thought about playing something from the early years of his career when he recorded the complete piano concertos of Beethoven with the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by George Szell..
I also considered Two Hands. I often feature selections from that disc as a sort of happy ending to the Fleisher story. Usually, it’s one of the two Bach chorale preludes that open the CD: “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and “Sheep May Safely Graze.”
But it just seemed more appropriate to turn to a piece that for years I’ve sometimes teased listeners with: the fourth of the Six Etudes, op. 135 by Camille Saint-Saëns from a 1991 recording with Fleisher. There have been times when I’ve said at the outset only that there’s something different about it. Then I hold my breath in the hope that listeners are thinking: “Sounds just like a piano piece to me – a fun one at that – maybe a little like Bach.”
I always want to wait until afterwards to reveal the surprise that indeed what sounded like 2 hands was just a left hand playing. I want listeners to be a bit amazed, even if they don’t know the entire story about Leon Fleisher, which is even more amazing.
I’m always learning a bit more about the life of British guitarist Julian Bream. And last Friday, I learned the sad news that Bream passed away at age 87 on August 14th.
There was a time when the Bream recordings arrived regularly. He recorded everything from Renaissance lute music to works written for him. There’s a 40+ CD collection that’s out there to remind you of all that he recorded, some of it with guitarist John Williams.
Bream retired in 2002 after a career of 55 years of performing. In 2013, he chatted with Stuart Jeffries of The Guardian, just after his 80th birthday. The guitarist told Jeffries that he had been playing only in churches or in halls close to home. But while walking his dog Django (named for jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, whose recordings inspired the 9-year old Bream), a neighbor’s dog knocked him down. He broke both hips and injured his left hand.
After that, he wasn’t playing at all. He said that there was nothing sad about it. But he added: "The thing I feel a little annoyed about is that I know I'm a better musician than I was at 70, but I can't prove it."
Bream did admit that he still picked up his instrument daily, not for the four hour practice sessions he’d gotten accustomed to, but just to play a few arpeggios or scales. "The whole idea is that I believe it's very good for one's brain and muscular system to work in harmony. If you keep up your playing it just keeps things ticking over." He also told Jeffries: "I devoted my life to music for a reason....and the reason wasn't because I wanted to get on or make money, but to try to fulfill myself and also to give people pleasure. That's been my credo."
I was fortunate to have heard him play well before that. I reminisced about it a couple of years ago around the time of his 85th birthday. Here’s a link to it.
Julian Bream, like Leon Fleisher, will continue to be a part of our Classic Mornings along with quite an impressive cast of performers of the past and present. I hope you’ll join us, Monday through Friday from 9-noon on FM 90.9 and online at will.illinois.edu.