left hand legacy cobra

Left Hand Legacy Volume 1
Chamber Music Written for Paul Wittgenstein
Ernest Walker (1870-1949)

Variations on an original theme, for piano left hand, clarinet, violin, viola and cello (1933)
Josef Labor (1842-1924)
Violin Sonata No.3 in E major (1916)
Hans Gál (1890-1987)
Piano Quartet in A major (1926)
Franz Schmidt (1874-1939)
Piano Quintet in A major, for piano left hand, clarinet, violin, viola and cello (1938)
Folke Nauta (piano), Lars Wouters van den Oudenweijer (clarinet), Prisma String Trio
rec. 2022, MuziekHaven, Zaandam, The Netherlands
Cobra Records COBRA0087
[2 CDs: 137]

Pianist Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961) was born in to a fabulously wealthy but troubled family headed by a tyrannical father. He studied with noted pedagogue Theodor Leschetizky but any potential career was put on hold by the outbreak of war and Wittgenstein losing his right arm to a Russian bullet just three weeks after joining the fray. His iron will and a chance encounter with a book by Count Géza Zichy who lost his right arm in a childhood hunting accident spurred him on to recreate his technique in terms of his left hand alone, practising on an upturned crate with piano keys marked on it – all that was available in the prison camp where he was held. Once he was liberated he began to re-build his career, commissioning new works and making his own arrangements. Ravel’s Concerto for the left hand is the most famous result of this endeavour but beyond this little of the Austrian pianist’s legacy remains in the concert hall. Perhaps one can count Prokofiev’s fourth Concerto, which Wittgenstein disliked and never played or Britten’s Diversions but these lag far, far behind the Ravel in terms of both concert and recorded performances. The same is true of the several chamber works written for him; the Schmidt recorded here has been recorded several times as has Erich Korngold’s Suite op.23 but neither are regular visitors to the concert stage. Other chamber works that he premiered, including ten by his teacher and mentor Josef Labor, lay hidden, jealously guarded by the pianist himself and latterly by his widow, were only made available after her death in 2001. Dutch pianist Folke Naute has joined with clarinettist Lars Wouters van den Oudenweijer and the Prisma String Trio to bring these to life with two double albums as a part of their Wittgenstein Project.

Volume one brings world premiere recordings of works by Ernest Walker and Josef Labor alongside the quartet by Hans Gál and Franz Schmidt’s monumental Quintet written just a year before his death. Ernest Walker was director of music at Balliol college, Oxford and was organist there for many years. Though his name is little known now he was a distinguished pianist and accompanied many great musicians including Pablo Casals and Joseph Joachim. He was friends with Sir Donald Tovey and Albert Einstein and taught Victor Hely-Hutchinson amongst many others. Wittgenstein did not commission works from Ernest Walker though the composer had him in mind when he wrote Variations on an original theme; he had written two piano pieces for the left hand before he met Wittgenstein. The Variations are richly romantic and one can see why the conservative Wittgenstein enjoyed playing the work; after a slow introduction that includes a piano cadenza the clarinet introduces the theme which is then taken through seven variations. There are no huge contrasts of mood until the finale where a more playful mood begins, each instrument taking it in turns to play a faster version of the theme and continuing in light-hearted style. The elegiac sixth variation is all the more poignant considering that Walker passed away the day after hearing a performance of the work with Wittgenstein and a quartet of Oxford musicians. Josef Labor was Wittgenstein’s teacher and a great friend of the family; he also gave piano lessons to Arnold Schönberg and Alma Schindler, the future wife of Gustav Mahler. His own studies were with Bruckner’s teacher Simon Sechter and like Walker he wrote in a late romantic style. He was the first person Wittgenstein turned to for compositions for the left hand and it transpired that Labor was already working on a Concert Piece when Wittgenstein wrote to him from his prison camp in Siberia. In all Labor wrote ten works for his pupil including a solo piano fantasy, three concertante works, two trios, a cello sonata, a quartet, a quintet, an unfinished septet and the Violin Sonata presented here. One would not guess from the intricate, warm-hearted and playful first movement that this was the work of a man in his mid seventies nor would one expect such a idiomatic grasp of left hand pianism. The second movement is a jovial little dance but it has a beautiful lyrical section at its heart that shows Labor’s gift for melody. The third movement, a waltz melody for the violin against a gently flowing triplet accompaniment is short enough, at less than two minutes, to be an introduction to the finale, quietly energetic and with contrapuntal writing for both instruments. This is a glorious work that would grace any recital and the performance by Nauta and van Prooijen is a joy in all respects. Hans Gal was a resident of Vienna up until 1938 whereupon he fled to London; he took up a post in Edinburgh after the war and remaining there for the rest of his life. He was commissioned to write the Quartet in 1926 and Wittgenstein premiered it two years later though he only played it twice more after that. Like the Labor it is quite romantic though it has an occasional raw edge and some interesting turns of harmony. The breezy opening of the first movement soon gives way to a more lyrical passage and a sweeter central section. Once again there is no concession to the limits of a pianist with one hand and the writing covers the keyboard with surprising energy. After a vivacious scherzo second movement there is a powerful adagio imbued with some darker textures and solo piano writing. The finale starts off as a moto perpetuo but the action slows for a passionate passage, low in the instruments, that only gradually lets the faster music return which it does with abandon and some sparkling writing in the piano that sounds as if two hands were playing.

I have enjoyed getting to know these pieces and none more so than Franz Schmidt’s Quintet, one of six works that he wrote for left hand including two for piano and orchestra. Originally in four movements Schmidt added a second slow movement after Wittgenstein siad that he disliked the idea of a piano solo movement in a chamber work. As with all the recordings that I can see all five movements are included here. The extended opening movement accounts for 25 minutes of this 73 minute work; it is predominantly pastoral in nature, genial and melodic even though it is possibly a little long for the material, not that I found that an issue with such charming music. The second movement, intermezzo for solo piano, brings an altogether more brooding note to the proceedings though the melodiousness of Korngold peeps through at times. It is beautifully written and one can only think that Wittgenstein’s reservations were purely about it’s suitability for the medium rather than any doubt about its quality. The pianist is kept busy in the bustling scherzo, its non stop passage work providing a foundation for the melodic interest of the other instruments though there is respite from the hectic mood in the languid central waltz. The adagio that replaced the original intermezzo opens in funereal style with just piano – Schmidt really wanted to feature the piano evidently – though its role lessens as the other instruments enter; the melody at 4:08 played by clarinet and accompanied by strings is almost heartbreaking. The cello’s entry soon after this introduces new material though the elegiac mood remains leading to a sudden restless piano cadenza and another solo iteration of the opening music, now heard in the upper registers of the piano before the instruments once more join in. Schmidt revisits all of the earlier music so this solemn movement is double the length of the movement it replaces. This was the last piece that Wittgenstein commissioned so it perhaps fitting that the finale should be a set of variations on a theme by his beloved friend Labor, and that the pianist plays the first variation as a solo, a worthy tribute.

I cannot fault these performances at all. The players are all top notch and play this music with an intensity, virtuosity and vibrancy that brings these works to vivid life and whets my appetite for the next volume. The presentation is impeccable with two discs in a gatefold sleeve, informative biographical and musical notes in English, Dutch and German along with many photographs and a moody image of, one assumes, Folke Nauta’s hand resting on Wittgenstein’s practice piano-come-crate. An easy addition to my recordings of the year.

Rob Challinor

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