Accompanied by the Philharmonia Orchestra (the British orchestra based in London), French classical pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet performs Maurice Ravel‘s “Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D major”. Composed between 1929 and 1930, the piece was commissioned by the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein (May 11, 1887 – March 3, 1961), who lost his right arm during World War I. Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Ravel: Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (Jean-Efflam Bavouzet at the BBC Proms 2010)

Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand

Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand is a remarkable piece that stands out in the classical music repertoire for its unique origin, intricate composition, and the profound emotional depth it conveys. Composed between 1929 and 1930, this concerto was commissioned by the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm during World War I. Wittgenstein’s determination to continue his career as a pianist led him to seek compositions that could be performed with the left hand alone, leading to the creation of this extraordinary work.

Ravel, known for his masterful orchestration and innovative harmonies, embraced the challenge with enthusiasm. He aimed to craft a piece that would not only compensate for the absence of the right hand but also exploit the full potential of the left hand, showcasing its ability to express melody, harmony, and rhythm with equal prowess. The concerto begins with a mysterious, dark theme introduced by the contrabassoon, setting the stage for a work that is rich in contrasts and dramatic turns.

The composition is notable for its blending of jazz influences with classical forms, a testament to Ravel’s interest in American music and his ability to integrate diverse musical elements into a cohesive whole. The jazz elements are particularly evident in the rhythms and harmonies throughout the piece, providing a modern and refreshing twist that was quite innovative for its time.

Ravel’s orchestration in the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand is masterful, creating a rich, full sound that belies the soloist’s use of only one hand. He meticulously designed the orchestral textures to complement and enhance the piano’s melodies and harmonies, achieving a balance that allows the solo piano to shine through even amidst the full force of the orchestra.

The concerto is also a journey through a range of emotions, from the brooding and mysterious opening to moments of lyrical beauty and intense drama. Ravel’s use of the orchestra and the solo piano creates a dialogue that moves from dark, somber tones to moments of light and clarity, reflecting a wide spectrum of human emotions.

Despite its initial reception, which was mixed, the concerto has become one of Ravel’s most celebrated works, admired for its technical innovation, emotional depth, and the unique challenge it presents to pianists. It remains a favorite among audiences and a testament to the composer’s genius, as well as a symbol of resilience and creativity in the face of adversity.

The creation of the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand is a fascinating story of collaboration between composer and musician, driven by Wittgenstein’s resilience and Ravel’s innovative spirit. It stands as a powerful example of the possibilities of musical expression, even under the most challenging circumstances, and continues to inspire both performers and listeners with its profound beauty and complexity.

Wittgenstein gave the premiere with Robert Heger and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra on 5 January 1932. Ravel is quoted in one source as saying that the piece is in only one movement (Daily Telegraph, 11 July 1931, p. 364), and in another as saying the piece is divided into two movements linked together (Le Journal, 14 January 1933, p. 328).

Paul Wittgenstein

Paul Wittgenstein was born in Vienna, the son of the industrialist Karl Wittgenstein. His brother Ludwig was born two years later. The household was frequently visited by prominent cultural figures, among them the composers Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, Josef Labor, and Richard Strauss, with whom the young Paul played duets. His grandmother, Fanny Wittgenstein, was a first cousin of the violinist Joseph Joachim, whom she adopted and took to Leipzig to study with Felix Mendelssohn.

Paul Wittgenstein at the piano
Paul Wittgenstein at the piano. Ravel composed the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand for him. “Paul Wittgenstein 3 (c) BFMI” by Unknown – BFMI. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 nl via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paul_Wittgenstein_3_(c)_BFMI.jpg#/media/File:Paul_Wittgenstein_3_(c)_BFMI.jpg

He studied with Malvine Brée and later with a much better-known figure, the Polish virtuoso Theodor Leschetizky. He made his public début in 1913, attracting favorable reviews. The following year, however, World War I broke out, and he was called up for military service. He was shot in the elbow and captured by the Russians during the assault on Ukraine, and his right arm had to be amputated.

After losing his right arm, Wittgenstein devised novel techniques, including pedal and hand-movement combinations, that allowed him to play chords previously regarded as impossible for a five-fingered pianist.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet at BBC Proms 2010
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet performing Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (born 1962 in Lannion, France) is a French classical pianist. He is a former student of Pierre Sancan at the Paris Conservatoire. Bavouzet was invited by conductor Georg Solti (21 October 1912 – 5 September 1997) to give his debut with the Orchestre de Paris in 1995 and is considered Solti’s last discovery.

Bavouzet is a recording artist for the Chandos label. His recordings have received several Gramophone Awards (2011, works for Piano and Orchestra by Debussy and Ravel; 2009, Debussy Complete Solo Piano Music, vol. 4), and numerous other awards, including the BBC Music Magazine Award, the Choc de la Musique and the Diapason d’Or (recommendation of outstanding classical music recordings given by reviewers of Diapason magazine in France, broadly equivalent to “Editor’s Choice”, “Disc of the Month” in the British Gramophone magazine).

Sources

M. Özgür Nevres

Published by M. Özgür Nevres

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