Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The Left Hand

No. 320 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages, which can be found in our archives at https://archive.org/details/pcast320


This week’s Blog and Podcast mark’s Left Hander’s Day (which explains a Tuesday rather than Friday broadcast). It was first celebrated on 13th August 1992 as an annual event when left-handers everywhere can celebrate their sinistrality and increase public awareness of the advantages and disadvantages of being left-handed. As our way of celebrating this event, I programmed three piano works meant to be played by the left hand only.

Pianists limited to the use of their left hands are not uncommon. As an example, in 1964, American pianist Fleisher lost the use of his right hand due to a condition that was eventually diagnosed as focal dystonia. Fleisher commenced performing and recording the left-handed repertoire while searching for a cure for his condition. In the 1990s, Fleisher was able to gradually overcome his focal dystonia symptoms after experimental botox injections to the point where he could play with both hands again.
Unlike Fleisher, Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein’s situation was irreversible, having his right arm amputated during the First World War. He devised novel techniques, including pedal and hand-movement combinations that allowed him to play chords previously regarded as impossible for a five-fingered pianist.

A musician who enjoyed the company of several luminaries of the day during his youth (Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, Josef Labor, and Richard Strauss - with whom the young Paul played duets - among them), a determined Wittgenstein approached famous composers, asking them to write material for him to perform. Benjamin Britten, Paul Hindemith, Alexandre Tansman, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Sergei Prokofiev, Karl Weigl, Franz Schmidt, Sergei Bortkiewicz, and Richard Strauss all produced pieces for him. Maurice Ravel wrote his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, which became more famous than any of the other compositions that Wittgenstein inspired. (In a past podcast, I shared a performance of this famous work with the dedicatee as soloist).

Today’s podcast features one of Schmidt’s concerti, composed for Wittgenstein.

Caroline Montigny-Rémaury was Camille Saint-Saëns’ duet partner and the dedicatee of his ‘waltz-caprice’ Wedding Cake, Op 76, a gift for her second wedding (to Auguste Wieczffinski de Serres) in 1886. In 1912 she seriously wounded her right hand and she requested a set of studies for her left hand alone. For his six etudes for Left Hand Alone, Saint-Saëns recreates old dance forms from harpsichord suites, inspired by his life­long interest in the works of Couperin and Rameau. These are unpretentious pieces, but beautifully textured and intelligently designed. They were avidly studied by Ravel before he wrote his Concerto pour la main gauche.

Another pianist, Otakar Hollmann, also lost the use of his right hand during World War I. Although little known now, he was considered second only to Paul Wittgenstein in the promotion of the left-hand repertoire.

After a meeting with the pianist when he suggested a commission for him to play, Czech composer Leos Janáček refused to write such a work, declaring: "But, my dear boy, why do you want to play with one hand? It's hard to dance when you have only one leg."
Janáček later changed his decision and began composing a piano piece for left hand, but didn't consult Hollman. Ultimately, Janáček did not dedicate the work to him and did not give him the right to premiere the work; however, in May 1927 he sent the score to the pianist, and in the summer of the same year Hollmann started to study the new composition.

The premiere of the Capriccio took place on March 2, 1928 in Prague, with conductor Jaroslav Řídký and seven Czech Philharmonic members.

I Think you will love this music too!

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