Death has been on our minds, collectively and individually, more than usual during this time of COVID.

A number of famous people have died during the pandemic, though not necessarily as a direct result of it but merely due to old age – writer Clive James, composer Ennio Morricone, statesman Colin Powell, and jazz musician Chick Corea, to name but a very few. The classical music community has lost some of its leading lights, including conductor Bernard Haitink, violinist Igor Oistrakh, mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig, French horn player Barry Tuckwell, cellist Lynn Harrell, composers Frederic Rzewski and Krzysztof Penderecki, and pianists Peter Serkin, Leon Fleisher and Nelson Freire.

But while we naturally, and properly, mourn the felling of these great oaks, fortunately their legacy does not die with them.

Recordings are the most obvious permanent legacies of these, and other musicians’ life and work, and today the archive is vast, thanks to platforms like Spotify and YouTube which offer not only recent recordings but also those from earlier eras. Thanks to remastering and digitisation, it is possible to access vintage recordings and films. This material offers remarkable insights into changing attitudes and trends in interpretation, instrumentation, performance practice, programming and musical taste, and as such is a valuable and often inspirational resource for musicians, students, teachers and commentators. For the home listener, recordings of past performers are cherished and valued as a connection to the artist and the pleasure their music-making brings.

For audiences and listeners, our personal legacy also comes through the memories of performances, many of which may remain deeply significant to us. Such memories may be enriched through recordings, but nothing can truly replace the experience of a live concert. (I feel very privileged to have heard Bernard Haitink and Nelson Freire in concerts in London in recent years.)

But perhaps the greatest legacy, especially of pianists such Leon Fleisher, is through their teaching. Here, their knowledge is passed on to subsequent generations through their pupils and those pupils’ pupils. Great pianist-teachers like Fleisher also connect us to earlier generations of pianists – Fleisher, for example, studied with Artur Schnabel and Maria Curcio – and this provides a unique window on past practices in teaching and performance. This passing on of ‘secrets’ handed down from earlier teachers enriches one’s experience of previous performers and performances while informing one’s own musical study and development.

Leon Fleisher New York Times

A special tribute to the great American pianist Leon Fleisher on the first anniversary of his death, created by pianist Lydia Seifter.

Lydia introduces the project:

The focus of this initiative is the secondary theme from the first movement of the Brahms D Minor Concerto, which I have invited my wonderful pianist colleagues to perform and post as an hommage to Mr. Fleisher.
I would also like to shine the spotlight on the fabulous pianists who contributed such heartfelt performances, each bringing his or her unique perspective to the Brahms Concerto. (Remembrances and links to individual performances are located in the Comments Section)



The quote in the title is from celebrated pianist Leon Fleisher, who died in August 2020 at the age of 92.

Leon Fleisher New York Times

In the many tributes to him, his wisdom and good sense, as a musician and a human being, and his rich legacy will live on in the memories of his performances, his recordings, his pupils (who include Jonathan Biss and Yefim Bronfman), and teachers, who pass on his wisdom on to their own students.

Back in 2008, in an interview with The Times newspaper, Leon Fleisher said of pianists: We are athletes, but we’re athletes with small muscles. There is a limit. Now you get kids who can do things with such extraordinary brilliance on the keyboard that they belong in the circus. But it ain’t got nothing to do with music-making.”

Fleisher was primarily referring to practising and the habit of pianists to work themselves too hard, to the point where practising becomes harmful rather than helpful. But I find his comment about the circus and keyboard athletics, and the artistry of musicians interesting too.

How many of us have marvelled at the fleet fingers of young pianists, some as young as 10 or 11 (and the internet is awash with videos of these mini ‘virtuosi’)? The ability to play very fast, very accurately is, for many, both inside and outside the profession, a mark of the pianist’s facility and executive function. For those less versed in the true exigencies of the profession, it is a sign of brilliance – and the younger, and faster, the player, the more we exclaim “genius!”.

And in addition to all those videos of fleet-fingered would-be Ashkenazys and Argerichs, there are any number of tutorials offering advice on how to achieve such velocity: finger drills and exercises to train muscles and reflexes, while simultaneously numbing the mind.

Fleisher is right: keyboard circus tricks have nothing to do with music-making. Pianists are not performing dogs – because the craft of the musician, and the art of music-making, goes far, far beyond mere piano pyrotechnics. It doesn’t matter how fast you can play, if you cannot communicate the deeper message of the music, its emotion and its truth, then you are nothing more than a circus showman, a mere typist albeit with executive function, and what you present in the music is merely surface artifice. The pianist’s repertoire contains plenty of music written to test the player’s facilities and display astonishing keyboard athletics, but pure virtuosity should never take precedence over artistic vision, tone quality, and a proper appreciation of the narrative structure and architecture of the music. Add to this one’s musical knowledge, accrued through training and experience, and a broader discernment of what music-making is truly about, and at this point the music is truly brought to life, with integrity, honesty and communication.