Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein established a most unusual body of works in 20th-century keyboard literature. Although he lost his right arm during World War I in combat on the Russian front, the feisty musician was determined to continue his concert career, which he had just launched the year before war broke out. To this end, he developed a formidable left-hand technique, and began adapting and arranging works for his own use. In addition, he approached numerous composers – including Paul Hindemith, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and Benjamin Britten – to create solos, chamber works, and concertos for his unique performing situation.
Wittgenstein was apparently a tough customer to please. When music from Richard Strauss arrived with a typically lush accompaniment, the pianist complained, “How can one hand compete with a quadruple orchestra?” Prokofiev’s Fourth Piano Concerto, composed in Paris in 1931, fared even worse. Wittgenstein returned the bold and difficult, though not impossible work, with a curt: “Thank you very much, but I don’t understand a single note of it and shall not play it.” Not knowing any other one-armed pianists, Prokofiev shelved it, where it lay neglected for a quarter of a century. Even Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand, considered the finest contribution to this unique repertoire, received a rebuke when Wittgenstein saw the long solo cadenza that opens the work. “If I wanted to play without the orchestra, I wouldn’t have commissioned a concerto!” Ravel refused to revise the work, however, and the pianist was forced to perform it as written for the premiere on November 27, 1931 in Vienna.
Though Ravel was a master at creating brilliant solo piano works, he had never before tackled a piano concerto. As if to make up for lost time, he found himself writing two piano concertos at the age of 55. The composer had been toying with the idea of writing a concerto for himself for a projected second tour to America, following his overseas triumph during the 1927/28 season. The Wittgenstein commission finally spurred Ravel to action. From spring of 1930 until autumn of 1931, he worked simultaneously on the Concerto in G for his own concerts, and the one for the left hand requested by Wittgenstein. While the composer conceived his own concerto as a scintillating divertissement, the Concerto for the Left Hand emerged as a dark, powerful work with tragic overtones, and displays a great deal of resourcefulness and originality on Ravel’s part.
It was imperative to the composer that the D-major Concerto not have the slightest hint of being a stunt. “In a work of this kind, it is essential to give the impression of a texture no thinner than that of a part written for both hands. For the same reason, I resorted to a style that is much nearer to that of the more solemn kind of traditional concerto.” Indeed, this rather soulful work from the pen of the usually elegant and aloof Ravel ranks among his finest creations.
The Concerto unfolds in a single movement that falls into three sections. An impressive feat of musical legerdemain and illusion, the full sound and texture of the solo part rarely give the slightest hint that a mere single hand is involved. As if to underline the usual domain of the pianist’s left hand, the exquisite orchestral scoring leans toward the rich, lower pitches of the ensemble, including English horn, bass clarinet, and contrabassoon, as well as low strings. This approach lends the Concerto a rather somber cast and an apt heroic grandeur.
The almost inaudible onset of the dramatic Lento preamble draws on the low-pitched sounds of contrabassoon, cellos, and basses. The gradual accretion of instruments and dynamics leads to a shattering climax that heralds the powerful grand entrance of the piano. The soloist’s initial cadenza commences with a savage survey of the keyboard’s nether regions, and sets out the principal themes with force and drama. Later, several solo winds join the piano to comment on and extend the reflective, nostalgia-tinged secondary theme.
Led by the brass, the tempo changes abruptly to a scherzo-like Allegro in furious 6/8 tempo. In an interview given to the Daily Telegraph, Ravel described this segment as “an episode in the nature of an improvisation… introducing a kind of jazz music actually constructed on the themes of the first section.” It’s a subtle blend of harmonies and rhythms inspired by American blues and jazz, mixed with exotic Iberian elements.
Returning to the territory of the opening, Ravel shows no mercy in the sometimes dreamy, always demanding final cadenza as the pianist traverses all themes, with an emphasis on the second subject. A brief but brilliant coda concludes the work.
— Kathy Henkel