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Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein lost his right arm in World War One. Brother of the now-famous philosopher, the pianist was the son of the wealthy industrialist Karl Wittgenstein. The family commissioned a number of works for Paul’s use, including the often-performed concertos by Ravel and Prokofiev for the left hand. The Wittgensteins single-handedly (pun intended) stimulated the first large body of piano works for left hand only. In the late 1960’s, American pianists Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman were both afflicted with focal dystonia in their right hands and stopped playing two-hand piano literature in public. This encouraged a revival of the left-hand literature, with a number of twentieth-century composers either commissioned or volunteering to add to the solo piano literature for left hand only.
On June 24, Gary Graffman will perform a concert at the Ravinia Festival in metropolitan Chicago entitled “Left-Handed Masterpieces.” The Tryon Concert Association in Western North Carolina had the good fortune to arrange a performance of the same program two days ahead of Ravinia. The Tryon concert series normally sells out by subscription; this special event attracted a smaller audience (the hall was perhaps half filled) but a very appreciative one.
The program opened with three early works of Alexander Scriabin (two written for left hand alone, the third transcribed to complete a short suite centered on C-sharp Minor). The only sonata on the program came next: Opus 179 of Carl Reinecke. The composer was a friend of Schumann and Mendelssohn, and their mutual influence is apparent in this work.
The third work on the program was Johannes Brahms’ left-hand-only arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Chaconne from the D-minor Partita, dedicated to Clara Wieck Schumann when she had over-practiced and needed to give her dominant hand a rest. Lowered an octave from the solo violin original, the transcription lives up to the title “masterpiece.” Following intermission came original works by Max Reger, Leon Kirchner, John Corigliano and Felix Mikhailovich Blumenfeld, then Leopold Godowsky’s transcriptions of two Chopin etudes, and as an encore Nikolai Slonimsky’s Variations on the famous Paganini theme (a composition dedicated to Graffman).
So far, this review has only described the program. What can be said about the performer? Even as he approaches his eightieth birthday, Graffman remains one of the last century’s truly great musicians. Playing with left hand only, the only apparent awkwardness lay in a few passages of the transcribed Scriabin etude, where the hand had frequent leaps from the accompanying harmony to the notes of the theme. A perfectionist might argue that the damper pedal was used excessively in the final few minutes of the Bach/Brahms Chaconne. But again and again in this work, Graffman was producing the melody, a counter-melody and accompanying broken chords in a way that was spiritually inspirational, reminding us that Bach composed the work while in mourning following the death of his first wife.
While each of the unfamiliar works was worthy of multiple hearings, the Reger and Kirchner compositions were especially appealing in this performance. In the Romance (the third of four Reger “studies”), Graffman produced sonorities reminiscent of a cello solo in a string quartet passage. In the Kirchner fantasy (dedicated to Fleisher in 1995), Graffman produced plaintive cries from the heart.
There was a subtext to the program: the influence of Russians and Russian emigrés on American music. Scriabin and Blumenfeld spent their careers in Russia. Their contemporaries Godowsky and noted piano teacher Isabelle Vengerova both immigrated to the United States. Vengerova’s nephew and student Slonimsky also came to the United States from Russia, as did the parents of Kirchner and Graffman, who are both American-born. Graffman was a Vengerova student at Curtis School of Music. The United States is much the richer for this mass immigration of musical talent from Russia.