A story I read about Leon Fleisher told that the repetitive strain injury that made an early end to his two-handed career, was a result of his heavy studying of the second Brahms concerto. Whether that is true or not, it sheds a rather strange light on these recordings that are otherwise among the most enjoyable readings of Brahms' piano concertos. The booklet of this double-disc quotes director Pierre Monteux who proclaimed Fleisher the 'pianistic find of the century', and he got it quite right. Judging from these recordings, Fleisher has an almost impeccable technical control, a very rare musical sense and an irresistible freshness in his playing.
Fleisher takes a very classical and unexaggerated approach. He makes a fascinating complementing collaboration with Szell, a director who has a more extrovert style. Lots of details that are normally skipped clumsily get into the foreground in these performances. And there's a warmth and satisfying sound in the playing of both parties that makes both concertos and the filler pieces so enjoyable.
The Fleisher/Szell D minor concerto is, in my opinion, better than the one Szell did with Serkin (I haven't heard Curzon's performance yet) and it is also one of the best I've heard anyway. Fleisher's very lyrical, intensely beautiful and flowing touch makes an ideal balance with Szell's passionate, sometimes aggressive and rough conducting.
There's an incredible intensity but it never goes at the cost of the beauty of the piece, which sometimes happens in Serkin's performance. Fleisher touches exactly the right snare in the solemn major theme that appears twice, and also in the scenes afterwards, where all tension has sunk away.
The peaceful and aggressive elements are presented very contrastingly, with very surprising results. The climactic storm that starts after 10 minutes receives an absolutely white-hot performance. And Fleisher's playing of the frequent trills here is simply better than anyone else's. Combined with the wild and aggressively sweeping strings, there's an unbelievable tension present. And in the blazing conclusion they really play their socks off! You'll seldom hear musicians with this level of engagement!
In the Adagio, the same formula is used, with quite equal results: the orchestra playing with a gorgeous, burnished sound while Fleisher flows through the notes like in a dream. He doesn't sustain quite the same huge tension as Serkin but I think he's more transcendent and beautiful overall. His trills in the last minute of the piano part are completely mesmerizing.
The whole final is simply great, with a stunning drive and spirit. Virtually the entire movement is one long engaging run towards the finish, without ever sounding rushed. Fleisher's playing again has a lot of vitality and freshness, and the orchestra shares in the same enthusiasm. Some details come out very well at this tempo, such as the instrumental echoing after 5 minutes. Overall the movement is exhilarating and a superb finish to one of the finest D minor concertos around.
The B flat major concerto fares almost equally well, also because they take a somewhat alternative approach. Fleisher's quite restrained and poetic performance turns the whole concerto, even the normally high-octane first movement, into 45 minutes of chamber music. And it's absolutely delighting. Fleisher's rather modest approach is all the more fascinating because it leaves space for the orchestra to point out a lot of often hidden details.
Fleisher makes the first movement flow unendingly, and it gets fresher with every minute! In the meantime, the orchestral sound is passionate but also very crisp and sunny. I can't tell often enough how refreshing and delighting this performance is! I like Schnabel's stormy heroism, Arrau's ponderous pensiveness and many others too, but Fleisher shows here how simple the piece can sound in the right hands. The sheer excitement lacks a bit in the piano interruptions starting after 45 sections, but it nevertheless sounds very *good*. And in the more singing sections of the movement, like after 11 minutes, Fleisher is unsurpassable.
Not less fascinating is the second movement. The dialogue between the two parties at the start nowhere sounds better. Here, Fleisher chooses a less extrovert sound than other pianists, and the result is that the constant sweeps of the orchestra are wonderfully exposed. He plays the rest of the movement utterly simple and light-fast, and it doesn't bore for a second. Szell's fiery accompaniment is very well in place.
The Andante is completely gorgeous: from the initial cello solo to the very lucid and meditative piano sound; the whole movement sounds out-of-this-world. It is profoundly moving in every second, and I just wish it would last for hours! Describing more has no sense.
In the fourth and final movement, a chamber-music sphere is ever present, and Fleisher and Szell take it even further than usually. Here too some interesting details show up. When the strings take over the main theme after 45 seconds, the accompanying cellos are much better audible than in any other recording, even from Szell. It's that kind of details that makes the superbly lucid and fresh performances even more enjoyable. The movement, as does the whole concerto, just sparkles from beginning to end.
The filler solo pieces are just as delighting, featuring the Handel Variations and some Waltzes. Fleisher responds very enthusiastically to the variations and gives beautifully poetic accounts of the waltzes. It also features the very well known A major waltz (no.15), a piece that could summarize the sphere of the whole second concerto quite well: subtle, lyrical, beautiful and majestic.
Anyway, this is the best Brahms concertos set available. The cooperation of Fleisher and Szell works wonders everywhere, whether in the stormy first or the poetic second concerto. And the recorded sound puts many modern recordings to absolute shame (really!). The packaging is great, with an essay of Fleisher in the booklet and some nice pictures too. I don't know of any reason not to get this set. Top recommendation!