Pianist, conductor, teacher, and artist Leon Fleisher concluded a three-day residency at Duke with what Duke Performances billed as an “historic” first collaboration with the Tokyo String Quartet, in a concert presented by the Chamber Arts Society. Coming on the heels of Duke’s recently concluded “Following Monk” festival, the Fleisher residency underscored once again the cultural leadership of the Durham educational institution.

The visit began with a masterclass on November 15, reports of which, from artists and teachers we trust and admire, indicate that Fleisher in an educational setting may well be Fleisher at his very tip-top best. There followed that same evening a screening of Nathaniel Kahn’s film Two Hands, which documents Fleisher’s nearly-30-year struggle with focal dystonia, the ailment that curtailed his brilliant career, back when he was only 37. Left-handed-only pianists have been around for many years, of course, and Fleisher isn’t the only former OYAP (Outstanding Young American Pianist) to have been beset with right-hand issues. Among others, Gary Graffman comes immediately to mind, and — like Graffman — Fleisher found ways to continue his career in music, albeit surely not as he might have envisioned when he made all those extraordinary recordings of Beethoven and Brahms and Mozart and Rachmaninov and Prokofiev and Schumann with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, Lps that set standards that in many cases have still not been exceeded. Yes, the career continued with concert appearances in programs devoted to left-hand literature and with conducting and teaching and ongoing study. Still, it was 1965 when Fleisher last electrified the concert world, and nearly 30 years elapsed before, in the mid-’90s, he returned, thanks to advances in medicine, as a two-handed player. In the meanwhile, a whole new generation of listeners had grown up, listeners who may have heard his recordings but who had not experienced his artistry in the concert hall. That’s a long time, and time has not halted his evolution as an artist and a person. The net result, however, is that, just as one can’t step into the same river twice, so the Fleisher we heard at Duke is not, for better or for worse, the Fleisher of the first part of his career. He’s altogether more restrained, more refined, more reflective, artistically, and he also seemed, often, more cautious, technically, as he approached his solo recital, given in Page Auditorium on November 16, and indeed when he appeared in the same venue the following evening to play Brahms’ Piano Quintet with the Tokyo String Quartet.

The recital program looked stunning on paper — it seemed the sort of line-up to die for, really, and it certainly carried the cachet of Fleisher’s superior intellect insofar as its configuration was concerned. He began with Egon Petri’s arrangement of Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze,” from S.208. There followed the B-flat Capriccio “On the Departure of a Most Beloved Brother,” S.992. The first half ended with Myra Hess’ arrangement of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” from S.147, and the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D Minor, S.903. In between, with a stroke of genius, Fleisher performed Stravinsky’s Serenade in A Major (1925), the master’s last important work for solo piano (and, curiously, one written for the phonograph company, Brunswick, with the movement lengths timed to fit 10″ 78 r.p.m. record sides).

This proved to be a fairly subdued, sedate, and quiet first half. There was no shortage of energy in the playing and no lack of projection of deeply-felt interpretations. There were some minor slips here and there but no showstoppers — Fleisher used music throughout the program. The works and their realization may not have been what Fleisher fans of old might have expected, but there was surely in the hearts of these folks ample rejoicing at his return to play again with both hands, so there was a measure of emotion radiated back to the artist on the stage. On the other hand, this was not the playing of a firebrand or of a virtuoso of the first order, so members of the audience who were hearing him for the first time may well have wondered what all the fuss, coming from the previous generation, was about. It reminded me of several other incomparable artists I heard perform late in their careers — Marian Anderson, Mischa Elman, Arthur Loesser. One cheered the artists and humanitarians they were and all they had come to represent. I had the same feeling during Fleisher’s program.

And indeed, if he’d stopped at the half-way point, it would have been enough. Alas, the second half, while also intellectually appealing, worked in some ways less well than the first. There were three Debussy preludes, two excerpts from Book I of Albeniz’s Iberia, and a Chopin group that wound up being shorter than planned. In theory, these selections would have been ideal to point up Fleisher’s artistic and technical prowess, but they were for the most part as subdued and sedate as the numbers offered in the first half. Here and there were flashes of brilliance that hinted at his genius. But ultimately there was not enough passion and fire to relieve the introspection of the musical bill of fare. It was thus at once a surprise and a disappointment when, before he was to have played the last scheduled work, Fleisher remarked that he was tired of the “recalcitrant” piano he was playing, so instead of Chopin’s Third Scherzo he’d perform instead Brahms’ adaptation for the left-hand alone of Bach’s Chaconne — a technically brilliant albeit also sedate work (particularly when played on a keyboard as opposed to a violin) of 16 minutes’ duration. A member of the audience who may not fully have understood Fleisher’s spoken introduction commented that it was the longest encore he’d ever heard. More to the point, it pushed an already generous — long, to put it another way — program out to end at 10:21 p.m. (This wasn’t entirely Fleisher’s fault; the recital began late, and the intermission wore on and on….)

In sum, then, one was glad to have been present at this program, which contained flashes of brilliance and fairly consistently inspired interpretive skills, and during which the audience listened with rapt and astonishingly quiet attention, but one was glad, too, to be able to look forward to the following evening’s offering of the Brahms Quintet, in hope that the Tokyo Quartet would help spark greater excitement.

The Tokyo String Quartet has frequently graced the seasons of the Chamber Arts Society. The ensemble’s current membership — violinists Martin Beaver and Kikuei Ikeda, violist Kazuhide Isomura, and cellist Clive Greensmith (which, come to think of it, makes them maybe half Tokyo) — exudes the sort of refined, restrained, somewhat aloof playing that has long been the group’s hallmark — and it’s precisely the sort of string quartet playing that would seem ideally suited to the current artistry of pianist Leon Fleisher.

The Page Auditorium concert drew a large crowd — noticeably more people than attended the solo recital the night before — for a program that began with Haydn’s second “Prussian” Quartet (in C Major, Op. 50/2). The performance was crisp and immaculate and polished and pleasing to the audience, which seemed to relish all the flawlessly-matched unisons and all the dovetailed phrases. One need look no further than this single work to understand why the Tokyo is at the top of the chamber music game — and why the Chamber Arts Society continues to bring the group back nearly every season.

The second offering was a new work by Toshio Hosokawa (b.1955), written for the TSQ and premiered by them in Cologne in March of this year. It’s called “Blossoming,” and it’s “about” — and is one of a series of works by this composer addressing the subject of — flowers, in this case, the lotus, which grows in water, sinks its roots into the mud, and blooms, slowly. The stately, at times glacial, pace of the music seems to depict, among other things, the opening of the flower in real time, as opposed to those time-lapse nature films one sees from time to time on the National Geographic channel. That it works as music in slow motion, across a 14-minute span, may owe something to groundwork established by Glass and his fellow minimalists, although the underpinning probably rests in Asian meditative philosophy. In any event, it seemed at first hearing a bit like the solo piano recital we’d heard the night before, in terms of its overall restraint, lack of passion, and many, many extreme pianissimos.

The second half was devoted to Brahms’ Piano Quintet, one of the cornerstones of chamber music literature. (The other major cornerstone of this type is Schumann’s Quintet, which — in a major bit of programming coincidence — was played in the same venue the following day by Bella Davidovich and the Ciompi Quartet.) The performance of the Brahms ought to have had everything going for it, starting with world-class artists, bolstered by years of experience, but the piano part was fairly consistently subdued, only rarely soaring in ways that others have managed and — as I read it — the score demands. The string parts thus took on atypically prominent lives; there was some virtue in that, for we heard felicitous touches throughout the work that are sometimes given much less exposure. And don’t get me wrong: there was much to admire here in the interplay between the strings and the piano, and there was lots of close watching and equally close listening during the collaboration. One wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else during those 44 minutes of music-making. But it would have been nice to have heard a shade more piano, most of the time.

It was one of those incredible weekends with lots and lots going on. Things had actually gotten underway on Thursday with Fleisher’s masterclass, which was then overlapped to a degree by the Ciompi Quartet’s “First Course” program, during which “our” quartet took up Steven Jaffe’s Second String Quartet, titled “Aeolian and Sylvan Figures.” The composer spoke and the quartet played the work and there were questions and more comments and then they played it again. This is clearly a major contribution to the literature, one that pays homage to the past with numerous subtle hints of respect (such as distinctly Webernian touches in the introductory measures and elsewhere). It also packs an emotional wallop, thanks in large measure to its stunningly beautiful slow movement, which could well serve as a stand-alone elegy or memorial piece, so compelling is its emotional power. The first NC performance of this work was reviewed for CVNC by Timothy W. Holley; his comments are worth a read, since alas the critic we’d assigned to cover the Ciompi’s Durham concert with Davidovich took ill at the last minute, so there will be no review of the November 18 program, which ended with the aforementioned Schumann Piano Quintet.

We regret this omission, together with a host of other worthwhile programs on the weekend of November 16-18. We can’t do them all! But we will be providing coverage of NC Symphony Conductor Laureate Gerhardt Zimmermann’s farewell Mahler concert; of Schoenberg’s chamber orchestration of Mahler’s Song of the Earth, performed at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on Sunday afternoon by vocalists Ellen Williams and Timothy Sparks under the leadership of Maestro Scott Tilley; and of a Raleigh concert by the Imani Winds, whose performance of Karel Husa’s Five Poems, given in the presence of the composer, set new standards for wind quintet excellence. Stay tuned!