I am lucky enough to have worked with many fine classical musicians in my career, but the time I spent with Leon Fleisher was personally and professional rewarding.
Without making this a chapter in an unnecessary autobiography, how Leon Fleisher came to me as a recording artist when I was running Vanguard Classics is forever available in the New York Times' archive, which you can read by clicking here: https://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/26/arts/music/two-hands-and-three-executives-are-better-than-one.html Right time, right place - at least for "Two Hands".
"The Journey" was a different experience entirely. The very surprising success of Two Hands kicked in a clause that no one thought would ever be enforced - a certain level of sales for Two Hands required that a new solo piano recording would be made, entirely paid for by Artemis Records, the company that purchased Vanguard Classics in 2003. The owner of Artemis Records at the time responded "Wouldn't that be something," when Leon's lawyer inserted the clause, and we all figured it was so unlikely that we never even blinked.
Fast forward to 2005, when Two Hands had surpassed the clause by 200%, and we started to plan the new recording. Now, Two Hands was presented to me over a wonderful lunch in New York City. The initial list of repertoire was so light that I said, well, this will be a lovely encores record, but if, as Leon had stated, that he wanted to let everyone know he was entirely recovered, the press was going to see right through this and say that while he might be back, he wasn't the Leon Fleisher we were hoping to hear.
It's rare to speak so honestly to a musician in the music business and I saw Leon snap back when I said it, as he was without a doubt expecting me to approve this without consideration. Then I said, if this were an LP, you'd do a side of the lighter material and then a second side with something for the critics. He paused, and said, "Well, Schubert. B Flat Major Sonata. I recorded it for Sony, but there's a mistake in it. I've always wanted to fix it."
Now, this is one of those moments in life when you believe in karma - Leon had simply named my favorite work in classical music, and a touchstone by which I measure most pianists. His recording for Sony had been LONG out of print with almost no hope of reissue, due to Leon's lack of public persona in 2003.
I had raised his competitive juices - and this proved to make Two Hands more than just a gimmick. And the idea worked just as we hoped - I was truly thrilled when word came to me from a friend that Maynard Solomon, a former owner of Vanguard Classics was highly complimentary of what we were doing with his former brand, and that Leon's performance of the Schubert - well, he described it in utterly glowing terms. I still have the email, from 2004.
But we're discussing The Journey.
The success of Two Hands covered up the ills infecting the music business in the mid 2000s. Sales were atrocious in general, but Two Hands was so unusual, that its outsized success, and the new found glow for Vanguard, created a magic bubble that brought an even greater illusion to me, and to the label. We weren't that good, but we looked it.
When Leon presented to me the repertoire for The Journey, it wasn't offered in the humble way Two Hands was presented. He knew this might be the last recorded recital (he had just turned 75) and he wasn't hearing anything but a yes. My stomach flopped when I read the initial list - two works by Bach, that's good. However, it was the decidedly unremarkable and barely known "Capriccio on a Departure of a Brother" and the thorny and highly non-commercial Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue. Then Stravinsky's Serenade for A, which Leon was personally asked to debut in the United States. No negotiation. Then there was some wiggle room - my desire for him to play a Beethoven sonata was rejected, then some Brahms, also rejected. A slight but lovely Mozart sonata was added, a marvelous Chopin work, and then his representative at the time told me very excitedly that Leon agreed to perform "Fur Elise", which I was told would keep the label alive for years to come. (That didn't happen.)
The larger label that owned Vanguard Classics was a quickly sinking ship - in fact, I was stunned when I was given the complete approval to begin sessions for The Journey. However, as I learned, they had to do it legally, but they had no intention of paying bills at all. There was a moment when nearly the entire project was riding on my American Express card, and Steinway was calling daily, asking for cash for a piano tuner. And the American Academy of Arts in Upper Manhattan, our recording venue, was claiming they needed to be paid in cash before they would open the doors.
The recording sessions were set for the week between Christmas and New Year's 2005 - and I arrived during that time to discover that not only was the pianist slightly unprepared, but that he was a bit more excited about the sessions he was doing at the end of the week for Deutsche Grammophon - something I didn't know about and had threatened DG that they were proceeding illegally because we had Leon under an exclusive contract. But I realized quickly I had been steamrollered and Leon was doing it whether I cleared him or not, and DG stopped taking calls or answering emails. After being promised a project with ANY DG artist if I would release Leon, I ended up with nothing.
We had five days of recordings scheduled...and I realized that much of that was rehearsal time - that is, Leon needed to re-learn most of these works. I walked in the first day while they were recording the Mozart sonata and I was very pleased, as it was beautiful. I did get to sit with Leon as he walked me through Bach's Capriccio - one of Bach's few programmatic works. But on the second day I was called in by the producer and asked not to return, except for lunch on the last day.
The recording was finished somehow, and the producer said it would be quite challenging to finish it on time, which was scheduled for release 9 months after the completion of the sessions.
We did our best to promote The Journey - we lined up the same crew that brought success to the first project, but lightning didn't strike twice in the same place. And in my ears, The Journey was, well, in 2006, I considered it a dull monster that I had spent money out of my own pocket (I was not reimbursed for about 25% of what I had personally spent). And it was a recording without a "hit", as Two Hands had been. Obscure Bach, overplayed Beethoven, minor Mozart, a justifiably unknown piece by Stravinsky - all of that stewed in my brain as the recording, which shipped a stunning amount of units into the marketplace, snored its way through the 2006 holiday season. No accolades, minor sales and the threat of thousands of CDs returned to us.
I didn't have to clean up much after that as the NY division of Artemis Records closed and I was dispatched, with a big problem trying to repay everyone in the small classical music recording world for what I had personally fronted for the recording.
I refused to listen to "that" recording since I left, until Leon died two weeks ago. I found a review that stated how wonderful his recording of Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue was - and I realized I knew that piece much better now than I did in 2007. And I sat down and listened again.
And luckily the pollution of the recording mess had cleared away, and I realized that I had again been involved with a fine moment in Leon's career. I'm sorry that I didn't have the chance to completely see it through - but now I have listened again, and come around to appreciating it for what it is.
The week after Leon died, John Schaefer from WNYC in New York created a special podcast that sewed together two radio interviews Leon did with John, in 2003 and 2006. (worth a listen: https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/soundcheck/episodes/remembering-leon-fleisher-american-original)
And I remembered the great lesson I learned in working with Leon - with all his issues regarding his lost right hand, he found his voice in teaching and helping people to understand about music. And that came back to me again, as I re-listened to The Journey. I heard his voice tell me about Bach, the postillion and meeting Stravinsky. And it takes a superhuman effort to clear away the junk and hear the music - and I'm grateful for relearning the lesson yet again, from the master.
PS the free download includes a superb interview Leon did with Bob Edwards - the two were a mutual admiration society - where he expresses the similar sentiments regarding his career and its twists and turns. Also worth a listen.