Friday 30 January 2015

Nicholas McCarthy at Rhinegold Live

Nicholas McCarthy - © Ceri Wood Photography
Nicholas McCarthy - © Ceri Wood Photography
Scriabin, Bach/Gounod/Wittgenstein, Schubert/Zichy, Novello/McCarthy, Liszt/Zichy, Gerswhin/Earl Wild, Strauss/Mann, Chopin/Godowsky; Nicholas McCarthy; Rhinegold Live at Conway Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 28 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Bravura technique and poetry from left-handed pianist

Rhinegold Live opened its 2015 season of early evening concerts with a recital by pianist Nicholas McCarthy on Wednesday 28 January 2015. McCarthy was born without his right hand, and has made a triumphant career performing the piano repertoire for left-hand. At his Rhinegold Live recital McCarthy included an arrangement of Bach by Paul Wittgenstein, the pianist who lost his right arm in World War I and who did much to revitalise the piano left-hand repertoire in the 20th century, and an arrangement of Schubert by Count Geza Zichy, a friend of Liszt's who lost his arm in a hunting accident and did much for the piano left-hand repertory in the 19th century. Also in the programme was Scriabin's Prelude and Nocturne for the left hand, written at a time when Scriabin had strained his right arm and arrangements of music by Ivor Novello, George Gershwin and Richard Strauss.

Each piece was introduced by McCarthy who sketched in the background to the work being played in a way which was both informative and entertaining.McCarthy was playing a very impressive Schimmel Konzert Grand, provided by Peregrine's Pianos which provides the instrument for all the Rhinegold Live recitals.

He opened with Scriabin's Prelude and Nocturne for the left hand, which was the first piece in the piano left-hand repertoire that McCarthy ever played. It opened in brooding, pensive style before becoming more lyrical and flowing, and quite extravagant in the way that Scriabin intensified the romantic texture.  McCarthy followed this with Wittgenstein's arrangement of the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria in which McCarthy combined a lovely even tone in the running figures and a fine singing melody.

Playing with just the left hand requires the pianist to combine the melody and accompaniment in one, bringing out the melody line whilst the accompaniment ripples around it and with deft use of pedalling to sustain the melody. To a certain extent, the pianist needs to deceive the ear and for much of the time, if you closed your eyes you could imagine McCarthy was playing with both hands. Of course, it requires superb technique and great stamina as his one hand had to cover the entire keyboard, often at great speed.

After the next piece, Zichy's version of Schubert's Der Erlkonig, McCarthy commented 'that's my gym work out done'! This was Zichy's arrangement of his friend Liszt's piano two-hands transcription of Schubert's song. Quite simply, McCarthy managed to fit in a remarkable number of notes into a bravura performance, but he brought a nice differentiation of colour to the different voices in the song and made sure that the work had the right sense of narrative drama.

His own arrangement of Ivor Novello's We'll gather lilacs in the spring was made for his recent tour Music in Remembrance (his CD of the same name is available from his website). Novello's attractive song is more complex than we give it credit for, and McCarthy's arrangement embedded a lovely singing melody into a complex, flowing texture.

Another Zichy arrangement followed, this time of Liszt's Liebestraum No. 3. Zichy seems to have been the first ever left-handed pianist and studied with Liszt. He also did charity work for limbless ex-soldiers and write a manual on how to do things left-handed (McCarthy commented that he still has not mastered how to cut up steak). Again the arrangement had a lovely singing line with a web of arpeggios surrounding it, and McCarthy's hand darting all over the keyboard, to create a highly satisfying and romantic version of the piece.

Earl Wild's arrangement of George Gershwin's The Man I love was full of rippling piano textures, whilst Jonathan Mann's arrangement of Richard Strauss's song Morgen was given a controlled yet fluid feel by McCarthy. Finally, McCarthy played an arrangement of Chopin's Etude Op.25 No.12, Ocean by Leopold Godowsky (whose son married Gershwin's sister). Godowsky did arrangements of Chopin's Etudes purely for the sake, it seems, of making them even more difficult; including arranging some for left hand only. The result was darkly romantic cascades of notes, with McCarthy producing some real bravura drama; athletic and robustly poetic.

The Rhinegold Live format combines a short early evening recital, with a free glass of wine (provided by Vat's Wine Bar) beforehand and a short interview with the artist, into a free event which mixes music with conviviality.

Afterwards McCarthy was interviewed by the editor of International Piano magazine, Claire Jackson. They talked about his early introduction to the piano, via a friend playing Beethoven. McCarthy went on to sketch further background about Count Zichy, commenting that he felt drawn to Zichy whereas Paul Wittgenstein (for all his importance in the piano repertory) was not as endearing. McCarthy also explained that playing with just one hand required adjustments to technique, he sits slightly higher than normal and has to use the pedal more. Commenting that critics sometimes complain of his playing being 'over pedalled', he explained that with out the sustain capabilities which having and extra hand gives you, left-handed pianists need the pedal as something of a substitute and that it would sound very thin without. A player also needs great stamina, as well as strength in the fingers to project the melody line.  McCarthy has started doing his own arrangements, and having tried arranging has discovered that he loves doing it. Finally, asked to choose a left-hand work by any composer he said Beethoven, because it frustrates him not being able to play Beethoven.

Rhinegold Live continues on Tuesday 24 March 2015 with the Allegri String Quartet, further concerts in the season include Carolyn Sampson in recital (29 April 2015) and violinist Jennifer Pike (10 June 2015).

Elsewhere on this blog:

1 comment:

  1. In introducing this concert, Ciaran Morton Managing Director of Rhinegold, invited us to appreciate the musicianship of the artist. I think that this review shows that we all did just that. However, the introductions to each piece which Nicholas gave us revealed him to be a very respectful individual with a warm heart and that made the evening quite unmissable for most of us.


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