Saturday, 21 September 2013

An encounter with Nicholas McCarthy

Nicholas McCarthy
Nicholas McCarthy is a young pianist who graduated from the Royal College of Music in 2012 and has made something of a name for himself by being the first left-handed pianist to do so. He already has a pretty impressive CV and next week he is giving a solo recital at St James's Church, Piccadilly (27 September 2013), performing a remarkably challenging selection of romantic repertoire. So I caught up with him to talk about his recital and the challenges he faces playing the piano.

Born without a right hand, Nicholas only started learning the piano formally in his teens, having first taught himself. When asked why he started playing, he talks about hearing Beethoven's Waldstein Sonata aged 14, falling in love with it and deciding that was what he wanted to do. After a couple of rejections he was lucky enough to get into the junior Guildhall where his teachers encouraged him to specialise in the left-hand repertoire.

In person, Nicholas is lively and affable, a young and enthusiastic pianist who simply happens to play with one hand.  The repertoire he plays (and there is a considerable amount of it) owes its existence to two factors, previous works written for left-handed pianists and composers writing studies to enable two-handed pianists to develop their left hand technique. Notable amongst the left-handed pianists was Paul Wittgenstein who lost his right arm in the First World War, and who commissioned many composers notably Ravel, Britten, Prokofiev, Richard Strauss and Martinu.

Prior to joining the junior Guildhall, Nicholas played the standard two-handed repertoire, having taught himself to play using his shorter right arm to pick out notes as well. His Guildhall teachers felt that, impressive though this technique was, it marked him out more as a novelty act than a genuine musician and that it would be better to concentrate on works for the left hand alone. Nicholas talks about how traumatic this was, losing a whole repertoire at the age of 17, but that now he has come to love the repertoire that he plays.

It helps, of course, that he has the temperament and technique to cope with and appreciate the basically late Romantic repertoire which is written for the piano left hand. He points out that playing only with his left hand does not mean that he is confined to simply the lower part of the piano and that he must traverse the whole keyboard at great speed. It also means putting all the stress on one hand (rather than two) and he admits that learning some of the Godowsky Etudes (virtuosic arrangements of the Chopin Etudes for left hand alone) gave him tendonitis and that nowadays he is careful not to practice too much. He does not really like practice, but coming to the piano only in his teens means thathe had a normal childhood and had to learn the discipline in his teens. He works best to a deadline, rather than rehearsing for months in advance.

Balance is also an interesting issue. He comments that most two-handed pianists who play the Ravel concerto must anchor themselves with their right hand (often gripping the piano-stool) whereas he does not think about it. having had to live with the issue since he was born, he is naturally accustomed to his own body's balance.

Nicholas McCarthy performing Bach's Fantasia in G minor

He is clearly knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the repertoire he plays, and many of the pieces in his recital on 27 September were either discovered by him, or arranged by him. He opens with his own arrangement of Liszt's transcription of Bach's Fantasia in G minor. Bach wrote his Fantasia and Fugue originally for the organ and Nicholas heard the pianist Dina Parakhina playing Liszt's transcription last year and realised that, whilst the fugue was out of the question for a one-handed pianist, the fantasia would work well and so he made his own transcription.

He will be following this with a work which he holds dear, Skryabin's Prelude and Nocturne Op. 9, which was the first piece of left-handed repertoire that he ever learned. Like much of Nicholas's repertoire, the work has a story attached to it; whilst a student Skyrabin had a competition with Rachmaninov and Levine to see who could learn Liszt's Don Juan fantasy first, Skyrabin got tendonitis and so wrote the Prelude and Nocturne so that he had something to play with only his left hand. (You can hear Nicholas playing the Prelude and Nocturne on YouTube)

Next in his programme comes one of Earl Wilde's Etudes based on Gershwin. Number 3 is based on The Man I Love and was originally written by Wilde for left hand only, but it was published in a version for two hands. Nicholas will be playing the original version.

With the next piece in Nicholas's programme we come to another fascinating figure, Geza Zichy. He was a Hungarian Count who lost his right arm in a hunting accident in his teens. He studied with Liszt and the two became friendly, he and Liszt played Liszt's piano three-hands arrangement of the Rakoczy March for a charity gala in the late 1870's though, alas, the arrangement has been lost. Nicholas will be playing Zichy's arrangement of Liszt's Liebstraum no. 3, arranged during Liszt's lifetime. He feels that the arrangement almost comes with Liszt's seal of approval, and wonders whether Liszt himself had any hand in it.

He follows this with another of Zichy's arrangements, this time of Chopin's Military Polonaise, and will be adding his own arrangement of Chopin's First Ballade. Nicholas has only recently started doing his own arrangements. But writing for left-hand alone requires such a particular technique that he thought he'd try it and has found that his own arrangements work well for him. He comments that Chopin, as a pianist and composer, was a great innovator.  But also, by doing his own arranging Nicholas feels that he is joining the long tradition of left-handed pianists transcribing music.

Adolfo Fumagalli smoking a cigar while playing.
Judging by the devils around his hand,
he is probably playing his 
Robert le Diable Fantasy.
He refers to Zichy as his best friend at the moment and will be playing another of Zichy's arrangements, his left-hand version of Liszt's transcription of Schubert's Erl King. Nicholas says that the piece is exhausting to play, but that audiences enjoy it. Another 19th century arranger for left-hand was the Italian pianist Adolfo Fumagalli, whose arrangement of Bellini's Casta Diva Nicholas will be playing. In fact Fumagalli was two handed but seems to have done a lot of left-handed arrangements to facilitate his smoking a cigar whilst performing!

During his concerts, Nicholas also chats to the audience and even has joked about how smoking like Fumagalli would not be possible for him. A comment which went down well with the audience at his recent Kennedy Centre debut in Washington.

Talking to Nicholas I am struck by his extremely positive attitude to everything. He has been playing the piano a remarkably short time for a professional pianist (most start very young), and has had to relearn his whole repertoire and change his technique. He comments of himself that he has the sort of temperament which finds its way round a problem; when faced with an obstacle he just gets on and does it. To a certain extent, he needs this sort of attitude. After all, his style of playing would be admirably suited to the Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov concertos but he will never be able to play them, whereas the concertos for left-hand are simply not as mainstream. He admits that he struggled with this when he was younger, but has now developed an attachment feeling that the left-hand repertoire is his repertoire.

He would like to play more concertos and work more with orchestras, but promoters seem to rather shy away from the piano left hand repertoire. It does not help that most of the works that Paul Wittgenstein commissioned use a very large orchestra, which makes mounting them expensive. Nicholas will be performing Britten's Diversions for piano left-hand and orchestra with the Bristol Metropolitan Orchestra, conductor William Goodchild at St. George's Bristol on 16 November. The work has barely been performed in public since Wittgenstein played it at the Proms in 1950 (when he performed the Ravel concerto in the same programme!).

Richard Strauss wrote two concertante works for piano left hand, but Nicholas ruefully points out that he has never been asked to play them, adding that we rarely, if ever, hear Strauss's concertante work for piano two-hands, the Burleske. It probably doesn't help that both left-hand works have impossible names, (Parergon on the Sinfonia Domestica and Panathanaenzug). Nicholas goes on to add that the Ravel concerto for the left-hand, by contrast is a dream to play.

We touch on the works written for the piano duo Phyllis Sellick and Cyril Smith after Smith had his stroke and played one-handed. But Nicholas points out that Smith played with just his right hand, so that any music would have to be re-arranged slightly. He adds, that at the moment he feels he has enough repertoire and is barely a third of the way through the available music for piano left-hand.

In theory he is interested in new work and played a piece by Tim Benjamin at his graduation. But much of the music that he is sent simply does not fit stylistically with the remainder of his repertoire and he finds it very difficult to programme.

Looking further ahead he has a lunchtime recital at St. George's Bristol on October 24, and is then off to Kazakstan. Next year he will be playing at St. Martin in the Fields on February 29, as well as returning to Fairfield Halls on Croydon and performing in the Brighton Festival. This latter appearance will be of a programme linked to the First World War. With so much of the left-hand repertoire arising out of that war, Nicholas feels that the 1914 anniversary is a good time to explore it and bring it forward.

He is currently 24. When he says that by the time he is 50 he wants to make the piano left-hand repertoire as well known as that for two hands, you feel that he may well succeed.

Nicholas McCarthy performs at St James's Church, Piccadilly on 27 September 2013, tickets available on-line from the EventBrite website.

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