Left to its own devices

Felix Blumenfeld
Source: Ivan Velikii at English Wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In English, the word ‘sinister’ suggests a touch of evil, taking its cue from the Latin, in which it denotes the adjective ‘left’ and a perception that the left hand is weaker than the right. As a left-hander myself, I prefer the view that we’re noted for being more artistic than right-handers! But, as a rather pedestrian pianist, I do humbly marvel at performances of keyboard works specifically written for the left hand alone.

Although Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand is probably the work that first springs to mind in relation to such repertoire, this blog has lined up a short selection of other pieces for the medium, starting with a Study for Left Hand Alone by the Russian composer Felix Mikhailovich Blumenfeld (1863–1931). He was a concert pianist (his pupils included Horowitz), conductor (he directed the first Paris performance of Mussorsky’s Boris Godunov in 1908) and composer. Blumenfeld’s piano compositions show the influence of Chopin and Anton Rubinstein. He wrote his study for the left hand in 1905; here’s an extract.

Study for Left Hand Alone (8.223656)

There’s a link between that piece and my next pick, written in 1976 by American composer John Corigliano Jnr (b. 1938). I’ll let the composer explain:

John Corigliano Jnr

“When (pianist) James Tocco chose me to write a work for him, I was delighted, as I had long admired his aristocratic and dynamic pianism. But the shape of the work had yet to be determined, and while weighing possibilities I kept remembering James’ performance of an étude for left hand alone by Felix Blumenfeld. I have always wondered if composers favoured the left hand even before Paul Wittgenstein’s injury forced him to commission concertos for left hand alone from Ravel, Britten, Prokofiev and Strauss.

That curiosity led me to the idea of my own left hand étude and taught me why the left hand is really better for solo work than the right. Unfortunately, I realized, one can only play the left hand alone for so long nonstop, and so my ‘major work’ would be quite shorter than the commission expected; however, what about a suite of études in the form of a fantasy, of which the left-hand study would be the first and germinal?”

Corigliano’s 5-movement Étude Fantasy was the result. Here’s the left-hand study that provides the first movement. Music critic Harold C. Schonberg once wrote that it made the Ravel left-hand concerto look like “child’s play”.

Étude Fantasy (8.559930)

Gustave Samazeuilh
Photo: Studio Lipnitzki/Roger-Viollet

Mention of the Ravel work brings us to the next piece by French composer Gustave Samazeuilh, who was a lifelong friend of Ravel. As the young son of music-loving parents, Samazeuilh was fortunate that Chausson, Fauré, Duparc, d’Indy, Dukas and Ysaÿe were all family friends, some of them regular visitors to the house, and the young Gustave was advised and encouraged by Chausson as soon as he began composing.

An excellent pianist, Samazeuilh is still known today for the hundred or so transcriptions for solo piano or piano four hands commissioned from him by composers and publishers. He wrote his Quatre Esquisses (Four Sketches) in 1944. Of the four short movements, the third is titled Sérénade (pour la main gauche seule). With Hispanic accents and endless changes of tempo, it’s based on a guitar work written in 1925 and dedicated to Andrés Segovia.

Quatre Esquisses (GP669)

Paul Wittgenstein
Source: BFMI, CC BY 3.0 NL , via Wikimedia Commons

As mentioned above, Ravel’s piano concerto for the left hand was commissioned by the pianist Paul Wittgenstein (1887–1961) who was just beginning to establish himself as a concert pianist when he had to undergo amputation of his right arm as a result of a wound sustained in the First World War. He was determined, however, to resume his career using his left hand only, and his family’s considerable wealth enabled him to make commissions from a list of eminent composers that included Britten, Hindemith, Prokofiev and Richard Strauss. Also, Karl Weigl.

Karl Weigl
Photo: Weigl Foundation

Born in Vienna in 1881, Weigl was a composition student of Zemlinsky’s and was subsequently hired by Mahler as a répétiteur and vocal coach at the Vienna Opera. He went on to become a well respected composer, but following Hitler’s annexation of Austria in 1938 he fled with his family to the United States where he continued to teach and compose prolifically until his death in 1949. For some unknown reason, Wittgenstein never performed the Concerto for Piano (left hand) that he commissioned from Weigl. In fact, it wasn’t performed until 2002 in Vienna by Florian Krumpöck, who is the soloist on our recording. Cast in the traditional three movements, here’s the opening of the finale.

Concerto for Piano (left hand) (C5232)

Leopold Godowsky
© HNH International

While I can empathise with brain cell messages telling the left hand to divide its time relatively simply between providing a bass line support and bravura melodies on top, the finger contortions required for performing a fugue are a little beyond me. Even with two hands, ensuring that competing melodies are each given clarity as they go their own way is challenging. To do so with only five fingers is a source of wonder. To demonstrate, here’s a short fugue by Polish-born Leopold Godowsky, one of the world’s greatest piano virtuosos, who wrote a sequence of demanding works for his instrument that fully reveal his exceptional command of the keyboard.

Godowsky’s Prelude and Fugue for the left hand alone was published in 1930, with a dedication to the American pianist Arthur Loesser. The elaborate Prelude is followed by an intricate Fugue on the notes B-A-C-H (German nomenclature for B flat–A–C–B natural), a favourite motif among composers that pays homage to the legacy of J. S. Bach.

Fugue for the left hand alone (8.225350)

Takashi Yoshimatsu
Source: T. Yoshimatsu Symphony Studio

Finally to something in lighter vein and the music of Japanese composer Takashi Yoshimatsu (b. 1953), who often combines elements of jazz, classical, folk and world music with rock formats. Some of Yoshimatsu’s most notable compositions centre on piano works for the left hand, which he wrote for pianist Izumi Tateno, whom Yoshimatsu describes as a ‘sworn friend’. In January 2002, Tateno collapsed on stage after playing the last note of a performance in Finland. He was 65 years old and had suffered a cerebral haemorrhage. He survived the stroke, but even after months of intensive rehabilitation, he did not regain the use of his right hand.

To play out, I’ve selected a movement from his Gauche Dances, which the composer himself introduces as follows:

Gauche Dances is a work filled with pop and rhythmical idioms. The work consists of four styles of music. Rock creates heavy and low beats. Blues sounds like luscious jazz music. Tango is the musical style which Mr Tateno is privately fond of. Boogie Woogie brings frenzied rhythms of joy. Anything can happen in these hot dances!”

Here’s that last movement.

Boogie Woogie (8.579121)

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