The inexcusable delay in commencing Maxime Zecchini’s piano recital did not eventually detract from what he had to offer.
Works for the left hand featured prominently in his recital programme. This is perhaps not surprising, if one realises that Zecchini has released no less than five CDs devoted solely to works for the left hand (‘Oeuvres pour la main gauche’).
It is telling that the word for ‘left’ in French is ‘gauche’, which can also be taken to mean ‘unsophisticated’, ‘awkward’. The Italian word ‘sinistra’ for left can also mean ‘sinister’. Conversely the word for right, ‘droit’ in French can also mean ‘straight’, or ‘law’; ‘destra’ in Italian also means skilful, from the Latin ‘dexter’ which also has both meanings.
In Hindi, ‘baayen haath ka khel’ is an idiom used to describe something ridiculously easy. All these historical and linguistic biases are certainly not applicable when it comes to piano compositions for the left hand.
What led Zecchini on this journey? He explains on his website: “I had the idea of exploring the left hand repertoire a few years ago when I first studied Ravel’s Concerto pour la main gauche. The idea that the playing of just five fingers could sound like two hands seemed like an extraordinary wonder to me. But a number of composers have managed to take up the challenge with exceptional talent. These works display the left hand’s vast capacities. At its best, it can make the piano sound like a full orchestra, by using the positioning of its fingers, its natural flexibility, and its powerful range in the keyboard’s low notes. I am delighted to be able to introduce the poetic breadth of this unusual repertoire, which is in equal parts technically challenging and spectacular.”
But why would composers even bother with such a nice repertoire in the first place? Keith Porter-Snell, pianist, piano teacher, and writer of educational music for piano students, lists four reasons: 1. technical 2. injury or disability 3. virtuosic display and 4. compositional challenge.
Hans Brofeldt, an expert on piano music for the left hand, in his website www.lefthand-brofeldt.dk which has a comprehensive catalogue of all the known piano music for the left hand alone, divides this piano literature into two broad categories, the first being injury/disability (the “tragic background”, as he calls it), and the other he calls “musical-intellectual gymnastics” (reasons 1, 3 and 4 listed by Porter-Snell fall into this category).
Porter-Snell explains that his own “particular interest in piano music for the left hand alone began with the onset of focal dystonia in my right hand; but my passion for left hand alone music grew from my need for self-expression through music.”
The work that began Zecchini’s exploration of left-hand repertoire, Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D major, also came to fruition due to injury: it was commissioned from the composer by the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961), who lost his right arm during World War I.
Wittgenstein’s steely determination to pursue an international career as a concert pianist despite having only one arm enriched the piano literature with many great works and has been an inspiration for later pianists who suffered similar disability. Other famous composers such as Benjamin Britten, Paul Hindemith, Erich Korngold, Sergei Prokofiev and Richard Strauss also wrote works especially for Wittgenstein. And Wittgenstein paid handsomely for these commissions.
I picked up volume 3 of Zecchini’s anthology (“the first one ever realized”, according to the liner notes), of works for the left hand, and his CDs span an eclectic mix as well. Some are bespoke works for the left hand, while others are transcriptions from the mainstream repertoire for the left hand. I was pleased to find such a transcription by Wittgenstein himself (Liszt’s operatic transcription of Wagner’s ‘Death of Isolde’ from Tristan and Isolde) in the CD.
Works for the left hand use the aural equivalent of “smoke and mirrors” to conjure up the illusion that the music is being performed the “regular” way, by both hands. Ravel said as much, when elaborating on his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand: “The listener must never feel that more could be accomplished with two hands”. It is this that makes the performance of such works so challenging. “The point where true art and the illusion begins, is when you can make the melody sound as one long smooth phrase and at the same time make the impression that the accompaniment is played by the other hand”, says Brofeldt.
One might be tempted to ask: why not works for the right hand as well? I think the reasons for this again, could be many. For one, living as we do in a right-handed world, accidents and injuries are more prone to occur to the dominant hand. There is actually some repertoire for right hand alone, but not as much as there is for the left.
Secondly, when seated at the piano, it would be awkward to try and play the lower register with the right hand, while still having the ‘leading’ finger (in the case of the right hand, this would be the little finger) picking out the melodic line. Far easier for the left hand to stray into the upper reaches than vice versa with the right hand.
And Brofeldt further explains in his website: “The left hand is just better ‘built’ for playing alone – especially when you consider the way traditional classic or romantic music is constructed. In its simplest form there is a melody with an accompaniment some tones lower. This is in fact just as if it were created for the left hand: the thumb of the left hand takes care of the melody, and the other four fingers take care of the accompaniment.”
With the help of photographs, he shows how the ‘reach’ (ie the maximum keys on the piano spanned) between the first and second fingers (the thumb and index finger) of his left hand is so much greater than that between the fourth and fifth fingers (ring and little finger) of his right hand. The wider reach in the former case facilitates this separation by a few tones between the melody and accompaniment, which would be awkward (should we say ‘gauche’, even if it is the right hand?) with the right hand.
Brofeldt also got introduced to the left hand piano repertoire after his right hand was partially paralysed for a year and a half in the early 1970s. His catalogue of composers for this niche repertoire is surprisingly long, listing over 700 names. It opens up a whole exciting new aural world to explore.
(An edited version of this article was published on 25 September 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)