Pianist Jonathan Biss Remembers His Mentor and Friend, Leon Fleisher, 1928-2020

Jonathan Biss | Photo by Benjamin_Ealovega

By Jonathan Biss

All my memories of Leon Fleisher fall within the same category: indelible. Fleisher, who died on Aug. 2 at 92, made everything riveting. I would have paid good money to hear him recite the phone book: The outgoing message on his answering machine was delivered with such elegant authority, I remember his home phone number to this day, despite not having called it since he acquired a cell phone two decades ago.

But Fleisher was no actor; he was a musician, to his bones. When that indelible personality was placed in the service of music, the results were not just memorable, but awe-inspiring. His teaching metaphors (“angel babble” for the upper-register meanderings in late-period Beethoven; “sheathed claws” for the attack one needed for Mozart) were phantasmagorical yet uncannily precise — hallucinogenic darts. His playing unlocked truths about the greatest works — truths that remain entirely obscure on the page, or in the hands of lesser pianists; it is through him that the monumentality and consolation and often frightening power of Brahms’ D minor concerto and Schubert’s B flat sonata became real to me.

He addressed these works, among so many others, with a permanent, innate intensity. Unlike many musicians of his generation, gurus (in their own eyes) who were terribly interested in being admired and feared, this intensity was not about meanness, but meaning, and the eternal search for it. The uncompromising integrity with which he approached music, working in tandem with that unflagging intensity, has likely been the most important influence on my life.

Why, then, is this tribute so difficult to write?

Well. The primary reason is that I don’t want to have reason to write it. When someone lives as long as Fleisher with their grit and marbles and essence intact, it becomes possible to believe that they will be around forever. The world without Leon is less beautiful and more mundane than it was; confronting that reality is so painful, I’ve spent the past week trying not to do so.

Then there is the problem of the ineffability of music, and of the greatest performances of it. Fleisher’s playing spoke, with disarming directness, to parts of the soul that language cannot access. Try to put his music-making into words, and you leech from it everything that made it unforgettable.

But really, the greatest difficulty in capturing Fleisher’s essence is that so much of him was contradictory. This — this embrace of the complexity of life and of music, this ability to hold an idea and its opposite in his hands, simultaneously — was, beyond the intensity, and the integrity, and the sound that shimmered and glowed in defiance of the laws of the piano and of gravity itself, the core of Fleisher’s artistic personality.

That contradiction could be seen in his eyes. Those eyes, which pierced you even in his last years when, having fallen victim to macular degeneration, they saw nothing, were emblems of his intensity; they scared the hell out of me the first few times I looked into them. But the longer I knew him, the more I noticed how much warmth, tenderness, and most of all, wonder were also emanating from those laser beams of his.

The contradictions keep on coming. Like all the greatest performers, Fleisher projected total certainty when he played: He convinced you not just of the rightness of his interpretations, but that they were not interpretations at all, but rather, the essence of the music, brought to life in the only way possible. But the essence he was bringing to life was one of mystery. He made you feel that music, like the world it describes, is ultimately unknowable. That there are no answers — only exquisite, life-enhancing questions.

Fleisher abhorred sentimentality: The worst word you could hear in a lesson was “lovely,” said in a voice that made clear that you had taken something profound and turned it trite, maudlin. But there was nothing cold in his approach to music. Some of my most touching moments with Fleisher occurred when, mid-sentence, he drifted into silence, or when, while demonstrating at the piano, he seemed to forget that I was in the room — in either case, overwhelmed at the emotion that the music had stirred in him.

There was tremendous rigor in his playing: The music’s pulse lived in his body, was never lost or compromised, and was the foundation on which everything he did at the piano rested. And yet in spite of this — or is it because of this? — he found so much flexibility in the music he played; no one could linger quite like Fleisher. And late in life, his playing became not just spacious, but timeless; the less time he had left, the more he gave the impression of having all the time in the world.

Fleisher believed that there were laws that governed music and gave it its power, and that you could and should spend a lifetime studying them. Just a month before he died, I heard him speak for a solid hour about the first five bars of the Beethoven G major concerto, a piece he had recorded sublimely nearly 60 years earlier and whose inner workings he was clearly still examining and reexamining. And yet his greatness lay not in his intellect, but in his instinct — his knack for placing a note (as late as possible without being too late, as he was fond of saying) in a way that redefined the phrase and realigned your soul.

And finally, there was pain in Fleisher. With his strong sense of moral clarity and of moral responsibility, the injustices of the world — the misfortunes of others — hurt him deeply. And yes, so did the injustices and misfortunes that had befallen him. I met Fleisher 30 years after he first lost the use of his right hand, and saw no evidence that the wound had even begun to heal. And yet! Fleisher was resilient, and he was wry. He found the absurdity in life’s small indignities and, however much hurt they had caused him, in the large ones. His laugh, like everything else about him, was unforgettable.

Classical musicians are even more prone to fetishizing the past than normal human beings; it is a habit both irritating and dangerous. But with Fleisher’s death, we have truly lost a giant. I believe that is an exception, not a contradiction. If I’m mistaken, consider it an accidental tribute to an artist who, in his infinite simplicity and complexity, enriched my life beyond measure.

Thank you, Leon: I love you very much. Rest in peace.

Pianist Jonathan Biss studied with Leon Fleisher for four years at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. He has since appeared on the world’s greatest stages, from Carnegie Hall to Royal Albert Hall, and with leading ensembles, including the Philadelphia Orchestra and the London, Los Angeles, and New York Philharmonics. He is Co-Artistic Director of the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont, and he resides in Philadelphia.


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