Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Bortkiewicz - Piano Concerto No. 2 For Left Hand Alone

As if playing the piano with two hands isn't challenge enough, there is a sizable repertoire of music for the left hand alone. Why music for only one hand at the piano? The reasons are many. In a world where right-handed people vastly outnumber left handed people, the invention of the keyboard naturally favored the right hand. The melody is most often carried in the right hand, while the left is accompaniment.  But there is plenty of keyboard music written that demands much of both hands, hence some left hand piano music was written to help develop it enough to play the more demanding music of composers.

Paul Wittgenstein
In some cases, loss or severe injury to the right hand of some pianists have left them with only the left hand to play with. Such is the case of Paul Wittgenstein, an Austrian pianist. He served in World War One, was wounded in the right elbow and had to have his right arm amputated while he was in a Russian prisoner of war camp in Siberia. He was a classically trained pianist, and was determined to continue his pursuit of a career of a concert pianist after the war. There were some pieces for left hand alone and he transcribed other works for his own use, but the fact that Wittgenstein was the son of
a wealthy industrialist offered him the opportunity to commission works for left hand alone from some of the top composers in the first half of the 20th century. He commissioned works from Maurice Ravel, Richard Strauss, Paul Hindemith, Benjamin Britten, Sergei Bortkiewicz and others.

Wittgenstein played the premiere of the Bortkiewicz concerto in 1923 in Vienna. Wittgenstein was pleased with the work and played it many times before World War Two.  As with all of the works Wittgenstein commissioned, he held exclusive performing rights to the concerto until his death in 1961. Even after that, Wittgenstein's widow would not allow the scores to leave his library. It has been only within the past few years that some of this left-handed piano repertoire has become available.

The concerto is divided into four tempo sections, but can be thought of as being in two distinct movements in a unique form:

Allegro dramatico - The composer begins with a loud theme for orchestra, after which the solo piano enters with a dramatic melody which is taken up by the orchestra while the piano accompanies with figures that make the listener forget that there is only one hand being used.  The second theme is traded off between piano and orchestra and is of a more quiet but still restless nature.
Allegretto - The next section acts as the usual slow movement in a concerto. New themes are stated, the piano has an extended solo, and the orchestra assumes a more gentle demeanor as the piano and orchestra engage in an atmospheric dialog.
Allegro dramatico - The material from the beginning interrupts with what amounts to the recapitulation of this first movement.
Allegro vivo - The music of this second movement is in contrast to what has transpired. It is an uncomplicated but interesting dance that unwinds into a rousing finish to the concerto.

The skill and artistry in which Bortkiewicz writes for the left hand and orchestra makes this concerto one of my favorites.  A solid knowledge of piano technique and use of left-hand devices and pedalling creates an illusion so strong that if the listener didn't know better, they would think this is being played by two hands.


1 comment:

  1. I find this LH concerto far more interesting than the third. There is more variety, more rhythmic interest and less 'plush'. Thank you for introducing me to it. It has inspired me to look again at Bortkiewicz' solo piano works.
    MM

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