March 26, 2009 / 12:53 PM / 10 years ago

Fleisher plays Mozart in two-hand concerto return

LONDON (Reuters) - U.S. pianist Leon Fleisher’s right hand is one of the most famous in music.

Pianist Leon Fleisher, a 2007 Kennedy Center Honoree, greets photographers as he arrives for a Gala Dinner at the State Department in Washington December 1, 2007. REUTERS/Mike Theiler

In the mid-1960s the superstar of the classical music world lost the ability to play with the hand when two fingers became immobile due to a condition called focal dystonia.

After 30 years of teaching, conducting and playing music composed for the left hand, Fleisher regained the use of his right hand after treatment involving botox injections.

The first recording since his rehabilitation came in 2004, and now the 80-year-old has released a recording of Mozart piano concertos including one where he performs with his wife.

He said the choice of music was partly dictated by physical limitations.

“I am still a dystonic, if you will,” Fleisher said in a telephone interview from the United States.

“I have focal dystonia and although I take treatments that help minimize the effects of it, nothing cures it, at least not yet, so I have to pick and choose my repertoire.

“I’m not a spring chicken. I don’t know what is the dystonia and what is the toll of years.”

He described Mozart as “the most transcendent and economical” of composers.

“If we had to be paid by the note, we would be paupers if we played Mozart, in contrast to Rachmaninov. I love these pieces very much and they lay in the purview of my possibilities.”

One of the three concertos on the new disc, called “Mozart Piano Concertos” and available in the United States on the Sony Classical label on March 31, is the same one Fleisher performed in 1995 which marked his return to two-handed playing.


The pianist plays with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra and performs Mozart’s piano concertos No. 23, No. 12 and No. 7. The latter is for two pianos and he is joined by his wife Katherine Jacobson-Fleisher.

Asked if playing and recording with his wife led to tensions in the relationship, Fleisher replied:

“My wife and I are quite proud of saying we have invented a new tort law for divorce. The big challenge for four-hand piano is only one person can peddle. We have invented new tort law which is divorce due to irreconcilable peddling.”

Despite the deep depression he suffered when forced to “retire” at 37, Fleisher said the experience brought rewards.

“There are moments in my life when I think back on this whole soap opera (and) I am not so sure, if I had the chance, that I would change anything,” he said.

“It forced me to expand my horizons. I discovered I had a pretty bad two years of depression after it struck back in the mid-60s.

“Suddenly one morning I woke up and decided my connection to music was more than just as a two-handed piano player. There were other ways I could remain connected and active in music.”

Fleisher believes his story, well known in classical music circles and the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary, will give “hope and courage to those who are confronted with events in their lives that seemed to be insuperable.”

Asked about his future plans, he answered: “I have all kinds of performance plans, playing, conducting and recording. My main concern is that I wake up tomorrow morning.”

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