Left to its own devices

A friend of mine once heard me practising the piano and suggested I try it one hand at a time so that it would sound only half as bad. He probably had a point. He also had an ability to sit on the floor with his back to the keyboard, cross his hands around his head before popping his fingers on the keys and playing God Save the Queen with startling accuracy.

The attraction of this type of unusual display inevitably registers with an audience in a particular genre of piano music, namely works for the left hand alone, either solo or with orchestra, sounding twice as impressive with half the digital resources.

Erwin-SchulhoffOne of the early releases on the Grand Piano label featured Erwin Schulhoff’s Suite No 3 for the Left Hand (GP604), while one of this month’s new releases from Marco Polo (Marco Polo 8.225350) includes several similar works by the great Polish-American pianist, Leopold Godowsky. These are certainly challenging and are a reflection of Godowsky’s own technical prowess on the instrument, even though he crumbled under the pressure of a recording studio, apparently.

The difficulties involved with performing JS Bach’s partitas for solo violin (Naxos 8.557563-64) are well-known, especially during those contrapuntal passages that seem to need a magic wand rather than a humble bow to perform them. In transferring the great chaconne from Bach’s D minor partita to piano, Brahms replicated the challenges by writing his study for the left hand only (Naxos 8.550509).

A near contemporary of Brahms, Charles-Valentin Alkan was also a virtuoso pianist and composer. He left a catalogue of demanding pieces for the charles-valentin-alkaninstrument, including the 3 grandes etudes (Marco Polo 8.223500) that make a more balanced distribution of labour: the first is for the left hand, the second for the right, and the third for both. More balance – if you believe the legend – is what Alkan needed when he was killed by a bookshelf that toppled over onto him.

Alkan was friendly with Liszt, whose purpose in rewriting his Ungarns Gott in a version for left hand (Naxos 8.553516) was not primarily to tax a performer, but to serve a friend of his who had lost his right arm during an accident whilst a teenager, and yet remained determined to prove his salt as a performer.

A similar disability brought about what is possibly the best-known work of its type today, Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (Naxos 8.571272). Having already dedicated his Le Tombeau de Couperin (Naxos 8.550254) in 1917 to friends who were killed in the First World War, Ravel revisited that sense of devastation when he was asked to write the concerto by Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm during the hostilities but who was determined to re-establish himself as a performer. He premièred the work in 1932.

sergey-prokofievIt wasn’t the only work, however, that Wittgenstein commissioned: Britten, Richard Strauss and Korngold, for example, all produced pieces for the Austrian pianist. But not every piece that was written for him received its première by him. One such was Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 4 (Naxos 8.550566), the inner logic of which eluded Wittgenstein, who said he would not perform it until he was able to understand it. He never did go on to air the work in public.

An air of mystery hangs over the work that Wittgenstein commissioned from Hindemith in 1921, Klaviermusik mit Orchester. For some reason, he never performed it, nor would he allow others to either play it or publish it. Posterity managed to hold sway, however, and the work finally became available in 2002.

The fascination for this handicapped type of work continues. American pianist Gary Graffman, for example, commissioned Ned Rorem to write his Piano Concerto for Left Hand and Orchestra as recently as 1993. But it’s doubtful the novelty will spread to other instruments, even though George Thalben-Ball wrote his Variations on a Theme of Paganini for organ using only the player’s feet. His demands to perform passages of parallel thirds with one foot only certainly aren’t for fallen arches, as this writer remembers only too well. It’s a good job my friend didn’t hear me practising on that occasion, too.