Page 14, 14th August 2009

14th August 2009
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Page 14, 14th August 2009 — Creating a sound world with one hand

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Locations: Oxford


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Creating a sound world with one hand

MUSIC REVIEW Michael White Oxford International Piano Festival


Westminster Abbey Organ Festival


There’s a breed of legendary, veteran pianists who don’t play much any more but when they do it feels like music history resurrecting in your lap. And one of them is Gary Graffman, the American virtuoso famous as a young man for concerto dates with Georg Szell, Eugene Ormandy and Leonard Bernstein (he also recorded the Gershwin soundtrack to Woody Allen’s Manhattan), but now in his 80s and surfacing rarely, if at all, on this side of the Atlantic.

The other week, though, he surfaced at the Oxford International Piano Festival, an annual beanfeast of concerts, masterclasses and all-round keyboard celebration run by Oxford Philomusica and its conductor Marios Papadopoulos. I’ve covered it before for this page – always enthusiastically, because there’s a peculiar fascination in the double exposure it gives its celebrity participants. By night you see them in concert; the next morning you see them teach (sometimes outstanding) students in a public class.

The extra fascination of Graffman is that he only has one working hand: the left. Some 30 years ago the right sustained an injury that meant it couldn’t deliver the standard serious musicmaking demands. So he stopped using it. And the other night in Oxford it either sat on his lap or lightly grasped the top end of the keyboard.

I have to say this isn’t comfortable to watch. It’s like observing someone drive a car with one hand: dangerously casual, as opposed to totally committed. Any minute now (you think) he’ll cross his legs and, with that spare hand, light a cigarette.

Of course it’s a false impression. Graffman was committed, totally, through several hours of left-hand repertory that to a large extent I didn’t know: music by Reinecke, Godowsky, Reger, Corigliano, even Brahms (who arranged the Chaconne from Bach’s D minor violin suite for left-hand piano).

In fact, it’s surprising how much there is for single-handed pianists. But – this is the catch – the hand has to be a left, not a right, because that’s what almost all the repertory exists for.

The reason is that there have been one or two noted (and helpfully rich) left-hand pianists in history who commissioned it all for their own purposes: notably a 19th-century Hungarian called Count Zichy, and the early 20th-century Paul Wittgenstein, who bought pieces by Ravel, Britten, Prokofiev and others. Result: if you lose the right hand you’re still in business. Lose the left, you’re scuppered...

As for Graffman, being of that great age he allows himself some wrong notes. But he remains a strong interpreter who knows how to create a sound-world/shape a phrase/float an idea invitingly. And with that one good hand he generates a grand dimension of sound that goes a long way to camouflaging the fact that there are just five fingers at work.

Another notable performance was the British debut of a young American pianist called Stephen Beus, who played the First Mendelssohn Concerto and almost convinced me it was a worthwhile piece. Done with an easy, graceful elegance but utterly compelling, it promises great things for his Wigmore debut next year.

Westminster Abbey runs a summer organ series that established a superlative benchmark last week in a programme by the abbey’s own James O’Donnell: a man not given to excess. He rules the abbey’s mighty Harrison as liontamers rule lions. He doesn’t feed it sugar. But the discipline itself becomes spectacular: lucid, intelligent, exacting. Messiaen’s Joie et clarté des corps glorieux had a fierce, white splendour that outclassed the tendency in this music to sleaze. And Frank Martin’s Passacaille was a revelation that, among other things, opened my ears to bizarre correspondences with the passacaglia in Britten’s only slightly later Peter Grimes.

They’re probably coincidence, because I doubt Britten could have heard this piece when it emerged in 1944 (in Switzerland). But I’ll find it hard from now on not to hear the Grimes passacaglia as an organ work transcribed for orchestra.

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