The Legacy of Paul Wittgenstein (1887–1961)

The next two weeks are particularly special for Scotland's National Orchestra not only due to the return of two previous RSNO Music Directors, Stéphane Denève and Alexander Lazarev, but also for the performance of two key piano concertos written for the left hand only, commissioned by the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm during the first World War.
Older brother to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, Paul grew up in a very wealthy household, surrounded by the cultural elite of the day, with regular visits by the likes of Mahler, Brahms and Strauss among others, the latter with whom Paul apparently played piano duets. He studied with the renowned pedagogue, Theodor Leschetzsky, and made his debut in Vienna in 1913 at the age of 26. Not long after, however, he was conscripted to fight in the war, was shot in the arm and captured by the Russians. As a result of his injury, he had to have his right arm amputated. While imprisoned, Paul swore to himself to find a way to continue his career as a one-handed pianist, and upon release he started to rebuild his career and was able to use some of the family fortune to begin commissioning a range of high profile composers to write music for him to perform, including the likes of Britten, Korngold, Strauss and Hindemith. The two most famous works he commissioned are undoubtedly those by Maurice Ravel and Sergei Prokofiev, both of which the Orchestra will perform in the next two weeks: the Ravel with Scottish pianist Steven Osborne, and the Prokofiev with Nikolai Lugansky – the first in his complete cycle of all five Prokofiev piano concertos with us throughout 2016.
Written in 1929/1930, Ravel’s concerto for the left hand was premiered in January 1932 with Wittgenstein at the piano and the Vienna Symphony with the German conductor Robert Heger (Toscanini apparently turned down the opportunity to be involved). Darker and more sardonic than its cousin, Ravel’s much-loved G major concerto which was written about the same time, on listening you might be forgiven for thinking this work is played by two hands, so clever is the way the composer employs the sound-world and extraordinary technical possibilities of the left hand only (interestingly the great pianist Alfred Cortot actually made an arrangement for two hands). By all accounts Wittgenstein and Ravel fell out after the premiere, due to the lack of respect the former showed to the score, making numerous alterations throughout. Ravel was never to forgive Wittgenstein for this.
Prokofiev’s piano concerto for the left hand, his fourth piano concerto, was completed in 1931, although, despite commissioning it, Wittgenstein never actually performed it in public (he claimed that he was waiting until he could understand it), and it was never performed during Prokofiev’s lifetime. The premiere eventually took place in 1956, performed by the German pianist Siegfried Rapp, who lost his right arm in the second World War. At first Wittgenstein, a notoriously prickly fellow, said no to Rapp’s request to perform the work. As he said:

You don't build a house just so that someone else can live in it. I commissioned and paid for the works, the whole idea was mine ... But those works to which I still have the exclusive performance rights are to remain mine as long as I still perform in public; that's only right and fair. Once I am dead or no longer give concerts, then the works will be available to everyone because I have no wish for them to gather dust in libraries to the detriment of the composer.

He later relented and allowed Rapp to perform the work.

How good a pianist was Paul Wittgenstein? You can judge for yourself below in this video clip of him playing Ravel's concerto:

Or here’s a longer audio clip from 1937 of him playing the same work:

What’s certain though is the extraordinary legacy of commissioned works he left behind.

Featured Concerts

  • Steven Osborne performs Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand as part of Denève Returns: The Auld Alliance.
  • Nikolai Lugansky performs Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No4 (for the Left Hand) as part of Lazarev Conducts Cinderella.
  • If you would like to find out more about Prokofiev, join RSNO violist Katherine Wren as she leads a Discovery Day around the composer who, like the RSNO, also celebrates his 125th birthday in 2016!