Masterpieces for the Left Hand, Vol. I = RAVEL: Piano Concerto in D for the Left Hand; SCRIABIN: Prelude in c-sharp minor for the Left Hand, OP. 9, No. 1; PROKOFIEV: Piano Concerto No. 4 in B-flat Major, Op. 53; BARTOK: Study No. 1 for the Left Hand in B-flat Major; BRITTEN: Diversions for Piano, Left Hand, in B-flat Major, Op. 21 – Samson Francois, p. (Ravel)/ Andrei Gavrilov, p. (Scriabin)/ Rudolf Serkin, p. (Prokofiev)/ Gabor Gabos, p. (Bartok)/ Julius Katchen, p. (Britten)/ Paris Conservatory Orch./ Andre Cluytens (Ravel)/ Philadelphia Orch./ Eugene Ormandy (Prokofiev)/ London Sym. Orch./ Benjamin Britten (Britten) – Praga Digitals PRD 250 315, 78:58 (9/11/15) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
A set conceived to honor pianist Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961), who lost his right arm in WW I but who commissioned seventeen works from various composers to suit his talent, producing one universally admired masterpiece, that of the D Major Concerto by Ravel. Assembled from various inscriptions, 1955-1978, the disc manages to celebrate an artist whose handicap became a creative impetus: the Ravel came to fruition in 1929, under the hand of Jacques Fevrier. Ravel had studied the left-hand etudes of Camille Saint-Saens before addressing his own concept of one-movement concerto that subdivides, Liszt-fashion, into a tripartite structure. The performance by Samson Francois and Andre Cluytens (3 August 1959) moves with a combination of grace and power, the music’s having risen through the bassoon into a marvelous cadenza for the solo instrument. Later, Ravel plays on the rhythmic ambiguities of duple and triple meter to maintain the nervous excitement of the development, aided by imaginative scoring for a large orchestra whose colors embrace trombones, bass drum, wood block, tam-tam, harp, and a full complement of bass woodwinds.
Prokofiev supplies the “concerto” as such, his B-flat Major, Op. 53 (1931), which remained unperformed during the composer’s lifetime, Wittgenstein having claimed he had not grasped its ethos. The two outer movements provide a kind of introduction and epilogue to the matter proper, the middle movements, which contrast a reflective nocturne (Andante) against a sarcastic moderato. Rudolf Serkin and Eugene Ormandy, who gave the American premier of the work, appear in their commercial CBS recording of 2 February 1958. The Philadelphia Orchestra, along with Serkin, rises to the occasion in blazing, virtuoso colors, while Serkin caps off a bravura rendition by running pianissimo to a high B-flat at the coda.
The two relatively intimate works, for solo left hand, come from Scriabin and Bartok, respectively. Scriabin wrote his Prelude for the Left Hand in 1894, conceived deliberately after an etude of Chopin in the same key, Op. 25, No. 7. In this haunted performance, Andrei Gavrilov (17 May 1978) at the Czech Radio projects a romantic intimacy of seductive power. The true “find” for the collector of the Wittgenstein legacy would be the Studie No. 1 for the Left Hand by Bela Bartok, recorded 20 January 1965 by Gabor Gabos. This disarming work bears the earmarks of Liszt by way of Rachmaninov! One of four such pieces composed in 1903, the work exploits huge chords that Liszt might have utilized in his rhapsodies, while the harmonic progressions, excepting some passing dissonance, suggest Russian lyrics or Liszt in his pastoral mode. Some dark chords appear prior to the conclusion, but they resolve into a bold illumination in the home key of B-flat Major. The work is dedicated to Istvan Thoman.
The final work, Britten’s clever Diversions for Piano Left Hand and Orchestra, presents an aggressive, martial theme (Maestoso) and ten variants that display the composer’s gift for antique forms, especially based on Renaissance and Baroque dances. Wittgenstein and Britten, despite their differences over the orchestration of the piece, performed the Diversions in 1942. Occasionally, the jabbing style of the variants indicates that Prokofiev’s model influenced Britten. Britten leads the London Symphony with the American piano virtuoso Julius Katchen in this classic performance from 3-4 July 1955. The sound remastering by Praga remains an examplar of clarity and instrumental projection.
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