Patrick P.L. Lam
, September 2009
Celebrated pianist Leon Fleisher was struck with a neurological disorder known as ‘focal dystonia’ in 1965, which left the two fingers on his right hand immobile. Ever since this sudden trauma, Fleisher’s concertizing and recording career as a concert pianist faced a tremendous roadblock, and instead, he curtailed himself to two parallel careers – as conductor and teacher. While he is achieving a reputation in these two aspects, Fleisher also concentrated his learning to perform the extensive but relatively limiting repertoire of compositions for piano left-hand. The current album allows us to sample one of his latest discoveries in this genre.
Pianists, like Leon Fleisher, who have experienced chronic motor injuries with their fingers, are often limited from repertoire that they could tackle. Noteworthy single-hand piano compositions have included no lesser than selected Godowsky’s reworking of Chopin’s 24 Études (written for both single or double-hands), whereas compositions for piano and orchestra written exclusively for the left hand have included the famous Ravel Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, and the lesser known Britten Diversions. Recently, with the death of Paul Hindemith’s widow in 2002, a newly discovered piece “for the Left Hand” was unearthed in a farmhouse in Pennsylvania. This piece, entitled ‘Klaviermusik mit Orchester, Op. 29’ (“Piano Music with Orchestra”) was composed by Hindemith in 1923, and similar to Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, it was written for the left-hand pianist Paul Wittgenstein. ‘Klaviermusik mit Orchester’ was written during a period when Hindemith was experiencing overflowing musical activities that literally brought long-term changes into the composer’s life as a musical figure. In a nutshell, it saw a plethora of new works from Hindemith in nearly all creative genres, including this very “Klaviermusik mit Orchester” for piano left-hand. Sad to say, however, not only had Wittgenstein failed to indicate any reactions on this work during his lifetime, he also never performed the work in public. To further its demise, Wittgenstein secured the exclusive performing rights of this work, and thereafter, made explicit rights ruthlessly and extensively such that this work could neither be published nor handed over to another pianist.
It took 81 years for this work of Hindemith to be “lost” and then “found” by Leon Fleisher. On December 9th, 2004, “Klaviermusik” was finally premièred by Fleisher and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle. So, here in this latest recording from Ondine, Fleisher joined forces with the young musicians of the Curtis Symphony Orchestra, under the guest direction of Christoph Eschenbach to make the first official recording of the work. Like the Suite 1922 (Op. 26) for piano solo before it, the ‘Klaviermusik mit Orchester’ marks Hindemith as a radical avant-gardist. As much as it is “a bit strange to listen to at first,” to coin Hindemith’s very own reactions on this piece, the overall work is coherent and musically uncomplex to understand. Together with the required artistry of Leon Fleisher, this work for left hand can easily match as a musical powerhouse as compared to those written for both hands.
Leading the Curtis Symphony Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach programmes Dvořák’s “New World Symphony” as a match to the Hindemith première. Perhaps, this Symphony is deliberately selected for the fact that this late Dvořák work has opened up into a sound world that is as new as when the work was premièred in 1893. ‘Forward-vision’ seems to be a recurring theme in both works of the Hindemith and Dvořák here. In this respect, the Curtis Institute musicians were not only properly trained in the strictest sense of classical music throughout their education, but perhaps also under the wealth of influence from Eschenbach, one can appreciate the fruits of the valued-training these young musicians received during their education. Particularly, they made a strong impression to display the various forms and rhythms of African-American folk music, and how spirituals may even perhaps be one of the important influences on Dvořák’s creative process. In retrospect, this symphony has had a significant importance in music history and is loved for over a century partly because of Dvořák’s forward-looking vision. Jazz and blues are idioms readily detected in the “New World Symphony.” Just as this symphony cross-fertilized “classical’ with “jazz” and “blues,” this album serves as a point of departure to uncover the depth and breathe in musical potential that marks each of these fine musicians. With this new Hindemith première for piano left-hand plus Dvořák’s ‘New World Symphony,’ this Ondine album introduces listeners to a new chapter on the Curtis Symphony Orchestra, under the fine collaborations with Leon Fleisher and Christoph Eschenbach.