(Photograph by Michael Lutch)
Is there a pianist in the house?
Moved and excited by pianist Leon Fleisher’s performance of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with the Boston Symphony, I wanted to hear it again. But when I returned to Symphony Hall, I learned that around 6:00 PM that evening, a stomach flu had forced Fleisher to cancel, and that the distinguished Austrian/Canadian pianist Anton Kuerti, in town to hear his son Julian (one of the BSO’s two new assistant conductors) in his BSO conducting debut, agreed to go on, without any rehearsal, in Fleisher’s place. I was disappointed—but not for long.
This also marked the BSO debut of the 69-year-old Kuerti, a masterful and elegant player who studied with Rudolf Serkin and Mieczyslaw Horszowski and at the Longy School, and played the first movement of the Grieg Piano Concerto at a morning children’s concert with the Esplanade Orchestra under Arthur Fiedler a week before his tenth birthday. Fleisher, at 79, and still in treatment for focal dystonia in his right hand, had to slow down the fast movements and still missed a few notes (he played “beyond the notes”). But Kuerti hit them all, jawdroppingly full speed ahead. His sound is softer-edged than Fleisher’s jewel-like pointedness, but it’s also crystalline, transparent, and so precise that every note is distinguishable, even as it’s flying by at hummingbird speed. The Emperor is full of trills, and Kuerti’s are virtually birdlike, rising in triumph then floating gracefully, magically downward.
Kuerti doesn’t have Fleisher’s muscularity or sense of drama, but he has, above all, an extraordinary sense of musical continuity. He seemed to play each movement, especially the slow, songful middle movement, in a single breath. His pacing was flawless, especially in Beethoven’s unbroken transition from the inward slow movement to the extroverted, dancing finale, which Kuerti plunged into with breathtaking daring.
This was the second consecutive BSO concert series during which a major soloist had to cancel (the week before, baritone Thomas Quasthoff sang a set of Schubert songs only at one concert before he came down with the flu and lost his voice—he was replaced with the Brahms Serenade the BSO played the week before that).
Meanwhile, Kuerti’s 31-year-old son, who provided such sympathetic and imaginative support for Fleisher, delivered more of the same for his father’s very different approach. This was a memorable pairing. Surely the BSO will find a time when they can do it again, and with some advance notice.