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The Thrill of Discovery

August 5, 2008

You can hardly have more fun than by stumbling across quality music you didn't even know existed. Pianist Gary Graffman certainly provided a rich panoply of that Thursday in Palo Alto's St. Mark's Episcopal Church, via his recital titled "For the Left Hand." The event was presented as part of the important [email protected] Festival, to a packed and roaring audience. Their reactions were such that you might have thought you were at a rock concert.
Graffman opened with Scriabin's Two Pieces for the Left Hand, Op. 9, plus a transcription of his Étude in C-sharp Minor, the first of his three pieces, Op. 2. This was followed by Carl Reinecke's Sonata, Op. 179, for the left hand (1884), and Brahms' transcription of the Bach Chaconne in D Minor. Then we heard Max Reger's 1901 Vier Specialstudien (Four special studies), Leon Kirchner's For the Left Hand (1995), John Corigliano's Étude No. 1 (1976) from his Étude Fantasy, Felix Blumenfeld's Étude in A-flat Major, Op. 36 (1905), and two Chopin Études as transcribed by Leopold Godowski: the Op. 10, No. 6 in E-flat minor and the Op. 25, No. 10 in B minor.

All this was music played by the left hand alone, adding a kind of hocus-pocus aurora to the event. Listeners could see as well as hear what was going on, but some might have been constantly plagued by the suspicion that it's beyond human nature to manage so much texture with only one hand. Graffman produced as much musical virtuosity with one hand as most pianists can manage with two.

Scriabin's two left-hand pieces — a Prelude and a Nocturne — are occasionally programmed on otherwise two-fisted recitals. But his moody Étude was originally composed for two hands. Composer Jay Reise's skillful transcription was such that it lacked nothing of the original sounds. That took quite a bit of doing by Reise, and indeed a good deal more from Graffman. Yet it all worked out beautifully.
Fiendishly Difficult Brahms
The five Brahms "Studien" (Études), Anh. 1a/1, are virtually never programmed. Each is a transcription from some other composer's work, intended for the practice room. That's why they carry no formal opus number. All are monstrously difficult. They belong to that I-dare you-to-try-this school of sadistic compositions.

Brahms selected the Bach Chaconne from his Partita No. 2 solo violin. It has otherwise been set for both hands by several others, most notably by Busoni. In a fit of whimsy, Brahms set the violin-alone piece for piano with one hand, as if something had to be missing.

Reinecke's Sonata proved to be a work on a large scale, set in the traditional four movements after the basic Beethoven model. While neither startlingly original nor namby-pamby, the Sonata fails to hold my attention a hundred percent of the time, partly because of its length. The mildly unusual elements of the piece consist of a set of variations on a Hungarian folk song for his slow movement, and writing a Menuetto instead of a scherzo for his third movement. He made up for those two genteel movements with a firestorm of notes as his finale. It exists somewhere in the area of storm-and-stress Brahms. While the end result was never unpleasant, its success depended more on Graffman's playing of it than on its composer. Still, who even knew the piece existed?

The biggest surprise of the evening, for me, turned out to be Reger's four Studies and the fact that I enjoyed them so much. (Reger's music is normally my kryptonite.) The Studies consist of a Scherzo, a Humoreske, and a Romanze, plus a mini Prelude and Fugue. The humor and utter lack of pomposity came as a revelation. The pieces even shun Reger's normal tortured chromatics. For me, this was a major find.

Kirchner's piece came off as something akin to a Bach fantasy toccata, now bravura, then lyrical. For the Left Hand, written for Leon Fleisher, was far less harshly dissonant than Kirchner's earlier music, though nowhere near backward-looking. It's a fine, completely modern work worthy of a major composer. As with Berg, his compositions are highly polished and beautifully assembled, hence, also like Berg's, they are relatively few in number. That's a great pity.
Swirling, Dramatic Corigliano
Corigliano's Étude No. 1, the first of five to be played without pause, was even more dramatic. The composer added a special ending for Graffman so that he could include it in his recitals. There were nocturnal figurations, sounding a bit like a child of Bartók's eerie night music, with its swirls and knells. Corigliano, however, put a new spin on that sort of texture. Graffman certainly had the feel of it. Part of that was his super-expert pedaling to get just the right amount of sonority out of the instrument. In that sense, you might say it's a piece, not for the left hand alone, but for left hand and both feet.

Blumenfeld and Godowski were primarily major virtuoso pianists who fashioned music for their own use, as Liszt had before them. Blumenfeld's Étude could easily be passed off as Rachmaninov's work, though on a lesser level. Godowski's virtuosity was legendary. He was possibly the finest finger wiggler ever to grace a keyboard. But his transcriptions are all glitter and contain little substance beyond virtuosity. They're like cutting into a cake to find it's mostly just icing.

He was known for playing faster than anyone had ever heard before, yet rather mechanically. Busoni's famous wisecrack about Godowski likened him to a player piano: "Godowski can play 10 times faster, but a pianola with 10 times as much feeling" — or something like that.

Graffman offered two encores. First up was Sergei Slonimsky's Étude on Paganini's 24th Caprice, written for Graffman. (Sergei is the nephew of lexicographer Nicolas Slonimsky.) Then we had a charming little prelude-like piece by Frederico Mompou. As far as the audience was concerned, I think they'd have been content to hear Graffman play the entire recital all over again from the top.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.
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