Pianist Leon Fleisher (1928-2020)

American pianist Leon Fleisher's career was shaped by the injury to his right hand, which meant he dedicated his playing to much of the left-hand piano repertoire

Pianist Leon Fleisher

American pianist Leon Fleisher has died, aged 92. Particularly renowned for his extensive performance of the left-handed piano repertoire, Fleisher recorded many of the works originally written for Paul Wittgenstein, who lost the use of his right hand after his arm was amputated during the First World War. Fleisher’s pursuit of the left-hand repertoire came after he lost the use of his right hand through focal dystonia, a neurological condition that affects the muscles. Despite this, after physical therapy in later life he was able to regain the use of his right hand.

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Beginning his career as a child prodigy, Fleisher learnt under Artur Schnabel from the age of nine, going on to make his debut at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at just 16 years old.

Shortly after, he began a prolific recording career with Columbia Masterwork, in which he recorded concertos by Brahms, Liszt and Beethoven under conductors including Leonard Bernstein and George Szell.

As well as pursuing a performance career, Fleisher taught and conducted at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. He also served as music director of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra in Maryland during this time.

After regaining the use of his right hand, he recorded a further two albums, one of them titled ‘Two Hands’, which is also the title of an Oscar-nominated documentary about his life, released in 2006.

Even in his later career, he continued to perform works for left-handed piano, not least the world premiere of Hindemith’s Klaviermusik (Piano Concerto for the Left Hand) with the Berlin Philharmonic in 2004. It was a piece initially written in 1923 for Paul Wittgenstein, who had disliked the piece so much he refused to play it but retained sole performing rights, which meant no other pianists could play it. After Wittgenstein’s death in 2002, the manuscript was unearthed and Fleisher performed it with the San Francisco Symphony and conductor Herbert Blomstedt.

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