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Leon Fleisher?s exuberant exploration of Schubert.

Issue of 2004-04-19 and 26

Posted 2004-04-12

"There are so few notes,? the pianist Leon Fleisher said, ?but so many implications.? The setting was a recent master class at Carnegie Hall. Fleisher, the master in question, was leading four young musicians through the mystical landscapes of the late sonatas of Schubert. He was speaking about the Andante movement of Schubert?s B-Flat-Major Sonata, but he might as well have been describing Bach?s ?Well-Tempered Clavier,? or Brahms?s Intermezzos, or any other music in which a smattering of notes conveys a world of feeling. ?There are so few notes, but the implications go back billions of years,? Fleisher went on. ?You have to be like the Hubble Space Telescope, which sees stars as old as the universe. The stars are dead, but their light is reaching us just now.?

Fleisher is seventy-five, but he looks an eternal, grizzled, professorial sixty. He is one of the incorruptible legends of his profession; some time ago, students took to calling him the ?Obi-Wan Kenobi of the piano.? Working with him on the Schubert sonata was Inon Barnatan, a twenty-five-year-old Israeli pianist with a clean-cut look. Barnatan smiled nervously and looked at the keyboard. How do you make notes sound like ten-billion-year-old stars? He tried again. He had been playing with exceptional stylishness; he obtained a hypnotic tone from the piano. But in his hands the Andante felt a little too finished, too smooth; the main theme didn?t sing out enough against the accompaniment, which consists only of C-sharps slowly rising by octaves.

Fleisher changed his tack. ?O.K., try playing these C-sharps as if you were a conductor giving a beat. You are making a grid underneath the music. It has to stay exactly the same. The melody can sway this way and that, it can come in a little before the beat or a little after it, but the C-sharps must be unbending.?

Barnatan resumed playing. The C-sharps chimed in clockwork patterns. Suddenly, the melodic line was freer, more sensual; its shape was framed by the grid. ?Good,? Fleisher said. Barnatan added a few accents of passion and began swaying from side to side. ?Not so good,? Fleisher said. ?When you get louder, the character changes. Your plaintive, yearning creature, your nymph or naiad, is turning into some horrible, saliva-dripping alien.?

The two dozen or so people who were attending the class laughed at the image?an alien clinging to the Hubble telescope. The rapt mood was broken. Barnatan?s shoulders drooped, but he kept smiling, and tried once more. This time, Fleisher was satisfied. ?Lovely,? he said. The next day, Barnatan did it again, and Fleisher said nothing for a minute or two. ?I?m enormously moved by your growth,? he said. ?Now all you have to do is play it a hundred and fifty times.?

Finish it HERE


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