Let’s call this series “Stunningly Powerful Pieces You May Not Know But That Bryan Lowe Feels You Must Hear at Least Once in Your Lifetime”. That’s a big promise, done a bit tongue in cheek, but if you are ready for a bit of an adventure, I’ll do my best to deliver. This series won’t be an easy stroll for those who like their classical music to be “pretty and that is that”. There’s a time and a place for that line of thinking, in fact, a lot of times in our lives “pretty” is the ideal in classical music. But, this is a step in a different direction. I consider these pieces stunningly beautiful, and challenging. The perfect pairing for me. I hope you find something in these pieces, too.
Let’s dive in and get things going this time with Ravel‘s Concerto for the Left Hand.
Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein lost his right arm in World War One, just as he was beginning his career as a concert pianist. In an effort to rebuild his life and career after his injuries, he commissioned several composers to write concertos that used just the left hand. It’s not a small order, reducing the huge capabilities of a concert grand to a single arm, and the stories say Wittengenstein wasn’t impressed by several of the efforts, including Ravel’s. Regardless, many consider this piece to be one of the great works of classical music. I certainly do. It’s the story of a challenge overcome, of a Phoenix rising from ashes, a journey clearly heard within the music itself.
As a side note, M.A.S.H., that classic TV series of a few decades back, featured an episode revolving around the story and the piece. A young soldier is patched up pretty well by the medics, but he seems devastated. Then, the medics learn he was a concert pianist. That’s something especially understandable for the classical music loving Major Winchester. He then remembers this piece by Ravel. He finds hope. Honestly, while I’d heard the piece before that and enjoyed it, it was this TV episode that really opened my eyes and ears to the power of the piece. A great M.A.S.H. episode and music of Ravel at its center. Perfection! I’ll add that this piece is in clear contention for my favorite piece of music of all time, and I love a LOT of music!
Watch this video, and remember as the music begins, the darkness of a concert pianist losing an arm to the pointlessness of war, then rediscovering himself and his love of music, through this piece. You’ll hear it, even if Wittgenstein himself, did not.
For extra credit listening, we have two performances of Wittgenstein himself performing the work. Honestly, there are better pianists you can hear online, but we owe a debt of gratitude and admiration to the man for his sacrifice and for making this piece possible through his commission.
A video with just the piano highlights featuring Wittengenstein. It is silent for the first few seconds.
Next, a complete performance broken down into two videos, but no video of the man himself.
Well, I can’t control myself when it comes to this piece, so I’ll add one more video. Pianist Leon Fleisher experienced his own health issues that made his right arm useless due to a condition that was eventually diagnosed as focal dystonia. Once again, Ravel, and Wittgenstein came to the rescue as Fleisher resumed his career with repertoire for the left hand.
Oops, I mean, two more.
More to come, including string quartets by Janacek, songs by Strauss, and more. I’d love your suggestions for other pieces to feature. Share your ideas at Bryanl@king.org.
Classical KING FM Host