The piano's left-hand men

April 10, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

While perusal of William Bolcom's score for "Gaea" suggests that it is much more than a compositional stunt, there's a sense in which every left-handed work is just that.

The piano's left hand repertory came into existence for one reason -- pianist-composers love to show off. The way Brahms viewed Bach's unfathomably great Chaconne for solo violin is a classic example of such a mind-set.

"On a single staff, for a tiny instrument, the man has written a whole world of the most profound ideas and powerful emotions," he told Clara Schumann. But when Brahms decided to transcribe the Chaconne for the piano, he did it for left hand alone. Only then, he said, could he approximate "the degree of difficulty, the nature of the technique, the rendering of the arpeggios" that made Bach's accomplishment so remarkable.

But, in this era, the left hand repertory continues to grow for more practical reasons. When pianists like Gary Graffman or Leon Fleisher injure themselves, they usually hurt their right hands, which receive most of the stress.

Such injuries to the right hand led Felix Blumenfeld, the teacher of Vladimir Horowitz, to write his Etude in A flat for left hand, and induced Scriabin to write his prelude and nocturne for left hand.

The greatest spurt of growth in the left hand repertory came because of World War I, in which many of the young men of Europe were maimed. It was the wealthy, young Viennese pianist Paul Wittgenstein, whose right arm was amputated after he was wounded on the Russian front, who was midwife to most of this century's most familiar left-handed pieces.

The most famous of his commissions was the Ravel D Major Concerto, but he was also responsible for Prokofiev's Concerto No. 4, Richard Strauss' "Parergon on the 'Sinfonia Domestica,' " Britten's "Diversions," as well as pieces by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Schmidt, Paul Hindemith and others.

Why isn't there a corresponding repertory for right hand alone?

Partly because it's much harder to write for right hand alone. A single-hand piece needs the sonority, bass and harmony established first. But when the thumb and index finger are forced to reach awkwardly across the body, as they must be with the right hand, it is difficult to get much leverage and more difficult still to voice large structures such as a concerto.

In concert

Who: Leon Fleisher (Thursday and Saturday), Gary Graffman (Friday and Saturday)

When: 8: 15 each night

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall Tickets: $18-$51

Information: (410) 783-8000

Pub Date: 4/10/96

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