The Leon Fleisher triumph -- and two major new halls open
Baltimore and Toronto — The big news of the past week was the welcome return of pianist Leon Fleisher to the realm of the two-handed pianist, after an absence of 17 years.
The pianist, one of the rising giants of his generation, was suddenly deprived of the use of his right hand because of an ailment. He tried to switch to conducting, and he occasionally appeared as a performer of left-hand music, such as Ravel's celebrated Concerto in D for the Left Hand.
Mostly, one had to console oneself with the quantity of splendid records Mr. Fleisher had already made with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, particularly the still-definitive account of the five Beethoven piano concertos (Columbia M4X - 30052), a superb Grieg-Schumann concertos record (Columbia Odyssey Y - 30668), and several solo recital disks.
Well, all that is now in the past. Fleisher performed Cesar Franck's Symphonic Variations as part of a gala opening of the Baltimore Symphony's new $ 22 million Joseph E. Meyerhoff Concert Hall. The opening would have been gala enough; Fleisher's return made it historic. He emerged looking leonine, and the Baltimorians, who clearly view him as a civic treasure, welcomed him with a boisterous ovation which soon became a standing one. He rose from the keyboard to re-acknowledge the audience, then proceeded to tear into the Franck.
The tendency of late is to view French music from the Brahmsian perspective rather than from the more delicate French or even Mozartean perspective. Fleisher clearly sees this as a thundering octaves piece, and symphony music director Sergiu Comissiona backed him up 100 percent of the way, offering an accompaniment of unusual alertness, pliancy, and orchestral detail.
The pace in the finale was a bit too frenetic for Fleisher to sustain, but it hardly mattered. He got through it with a clear sense of what he wanted and a decisive ability to put those points across. One would have suspected nothing less from a man of such high musical integrity.
After the tumultuous ovation (which can be heard, along with the entire concert, either on NPR or PBS Sept. 25 - check local listings for station and time), he sat down and played a Chopin nocturne as an encore. And it was over. Fleisher is now among us again as a two-handed pianist. He has been missed.
The Baltimore concert was a festive affair, not so much for the music played as for the event itself. Comissiona performed a delightfully showy new piece by Morton Gould, ''Housewarming,'' commissioned especially for the occasion. He concluded the program with Strauss's ''Ein Heldenleben'' as a showcase for his orchestra in its acoustically excellent new home. It did all it was meant to do while showing that the Baltimore is a solid ensemble and Comissiona a fine musician with a keen ear for balances. Toronto opening
When the Toronto Symphony opened Roy Thomson Hall Sept. 13, the program reeked of ''gala'' and suffered in consequence. Andrew Davis offered a new fanfare, Walton's massive ''Belshazzar's Feast,'' the Poulenc Organ Concerto, and Ravel's ''Daphnis and Chloe,'' suite No. 2. The Toronto Mendelssohn choir offered two a capella selections. It showed off more of Davis's flaws than his reputed strengths.
The fanfare was a noisy affair by Raymond Leudeke, winner of the nationwide competition for a piece to open the hall. The Walton was subdued, with little tension, and little sense of using an orchestra as a coloristic ensemble. The Poulenc received a literal, dreary performance under Davis's baton with the equally literal Hugh MacLean at the organ.
This organ, in fact, also has its share of problems, mostly in reeds that do not carry over an orchestra and a few stops that sound like a bad electronic home organ. But at least someone had the foresight to put a pipe organ into this hall. Baltimore has ''cheated'' by using an electronic organ, and the results cannot help but be unsatisfactory, since a pile of speakers can never replace the quality of pipes, no matter how sophisticated the electronics.
The Davis program included the premiere of R. Murray Schafer's ''Sun,'# a fascinating ritualistic-sounding choral work that uses various musical devices to set the word ''sun'' in numerous languages. The chorus sounded splendid in the hall, but the program Mr. Davis chose denied his listeners a chance to savor a variety of orchestral sounds in the new hall.
That chance came two nights later in a rare concert performance of Richard Strauss's final opera, ''Capriccio,'' staged for a concert hall by Lotfi Mansouri with the orchestral forces of his Canadian Opera Company under the direction of Julius Rudel. Johanna Meier, fresh from her second season as Bayreuth's (West Germany) first American Isolde, starred as the Countess.
Strauss's opera - a lengthy discussion on the issue of words vs. music - is not a popular one. Text-oriented listeners are partial to the work, tune- and voice-oriented listeners are not. Unfortunately, the work was done in German, with only a plot synopsis in the program book - hardly the way to get an audience interested in so wordy a work.
Miss Meier is a marvel. She is a celebrated Isolde, yet her ability effortlessly to rein in the voice to the chatty, intimate demands of Strauss's score proved uncanny. Her keen sense of vocal color and her detailed attention to words and their communicative power are rare even in German-speaking artists, let alone American. In the final scene, where the Countess finally has to sing out, she filled the auditorium with handsome, radiant tone, rather than flooding it with an inappropriately Wagnerian sound. In all, hers was a masterful account of a most tricky role.
Maestro Rudel worked superbly with Miss Meier and provided an elegant, sensitive account of this controlled, restrained, masterful score. The orchestra played quite well for him, and though they were on one part of the stage (the singers performed on a small ''stage'' to the right of the orchestra), the acoustics of the new hall allowed for a clear balance between ensemble and singers, with only incidental overbalancing, which Mr. Rudel's keen ear was quick to detect and correct.