Concerto for Left Hand

Caroline Rae

Lento – Più lento  – Allegro  – Più vivo ed accelerando  – Tempo primo  – Allegro

Ravel’s Concerto for Left Hand resulted from a commission by the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein (brother of the philosopher) who lost his right arm during the First World War. Although Ravel was already working on the G major Piano Concerto when he met Wittgenstein during a visit to Vienna for the Austrian premiere of L’Enfant et les sortilèges in March 1929, he threw himself vigorously into the project, composing both concertos simultaneously. The Left Hand Concerto was completed in 1930 and received its premiere in Vienna on 5 January 1932 only weeks before the first performance of the G major Concerto in Paris. Ravel conducted the Paris premiere of the Left-Hand Concerto with Wittgenstein as soloist on 17 January 1933.

While both concertos owe much to Ravel’s love of jazz and blues, the Left Hand Concerto is very different from the one in G major, not only in its single movement form, but also as the mood is darker and more brooding — a feature stimulated by the natural relationship of the left hand with low registers of the piano. A sense of mystery and foreboding is asserted at the outset where any sense of clear tonality is avoided. Opening in the depths of the orchestra with a softly arpeggiated chord of fourths in double basses and cellos, a growling contrabassoon creeps in with the first theme followed by horns, also in their low register, with a yearning descending third motif. These two ideas build the orchestral introduction that gradually ascends through the instrumental registers in a long crescendo recalling the sunrise from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. The climax is the entrance of the piano in a solo cadenza.

Although writing for only one hand at the piano, Ravel declared his wish ‘to give the impression of a texture no thinner than that of a part written for both hands.’ The piano cadenza, which effects the first cadence in the work’s tonic key of D major, reveals a dazzling new approach to pianism that characterises the whole concerto; the full range of the keyboard is explored through a combination of athletic leaps (often in rapid succession), cascading chords, arpeggiated figurations and sonorous bass-notes, all assiduously resonated through the sustaining-pedal. Melody lines are emphasised through the shape of the left-hand itself, which has the thumb conveniently positioned for the tops of chords. Such is the complexity of the pianism that Alfred Cortot arranged the solo part for two hands, earning Ravel’s displeasure when he performed the concerto in this version. Ravel’s preferred interpreter of the concerto was Jacques Février.

Following the yearning lyricism of the first section, the march-like Allegro presents a dramatic contrast in terms of mood, texture, key (E major) and themes. Percussive, energetic and with an obsessive ostinato throughout, the Allegro juxtaposes three main ideas: cascading triplet chords (first announced fortissimo on a trio of trumpets), a jazzy chromatic chordal motif, and a jaunty main theme in staccato triplets. The relentlessly driving rhythms create the effect of a prolonged moto perpetuo that is eventually interrupted by the dramatic return of the main theme of the first, slow section. Following the piano’s long final cadenza, a brief return of the Allegro material provides a climactic conclusion.

Caroline Rae

Further Reading