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Fleisher premieres long lost Hindemith conderto

Posted: Fri Oct 14, 2005 12:23 am
by RebLem
Long-Buried Left-Hand Piano Concerto by Paul Hindemith Gets Its Premiere at Last

By Richard Scheinin
San Jose Mercury News - 5 October 2005


Now that he's 77, pianist Leon Fleisher might be expected to do a slow fade-out, enjoying the twilight of his career. Instead, he's on the road, making headlines, which are based on some very good stories that Fleisher, apparently, can't stop creating. "Me and Hans Christian Andersen," he jokes.

Early last year, he generated the first set of headlines: Fleisher was the pianist cured by botox. You heard correctly. Botox injections allowed him to recover from a neurological condition known as focal dystonia that, 40 years earlier when he was at the height of his international fame, suddenly had forced the two outer fingers of his right hand to clench and curl.

Then, thanks to botox, life was new again. Fleisher — a San Francisco native, by the way — had a new CD and was ramping up his touring schedule. And he had a leg up on other pianists: Because of the dystonia, he long ago had mastered those rare piano works written solely for the left hand by such composers as Ravel and Prokofiev.

Which brings us to the latest headline: Tonight [October 5] with the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall, Fleisher is giving the U.S. premiere of another piano concerto for the left hand — a substantial work by another famous composer, written more than 80 years ago and locked away for decades. (It's the first of three performances here, conducted by Herbert Blomstedt.)

Paul Hindemith, the versatile and prolific German composer who died in 1963, wrote the concerto — titled Piano Music with Orchestra (Piano: Left Hand), Opus 29 — in 1923. It had been commissioned by a rather notorious one-armed Austrian pianist named Paul Wittgenstein, who hated it, but owned the performance rights and stowed the piece away. It collected dust until a copy resurfaced around 2002 at the Pennsylvania farmhouse where Wittgenstein's widow, Hilde, had lived for decades.

Hair-raising discovery

"It was found in a locked room by the widow's children," explains Fleisher, who lives in Baltimore and teaches there at the prestigious Peabody Conservatory of Music. "They just kind of came in and opened the drapes and shook out the dust. And in the same room with the Hindemith score was, according to one report, a lock of Beethoven's hair, and, according to another report, a lock of Brahms's."

The piece has been performed only one other time, in December in Berlin, by Fleisher with the Berlin Philharmonic. The pianist describes it as having a "jauntiness" and "enormous drive." It is from "a marvelous period of Hindemith's creativity" and has a slow second movement that, by Fleisher's estimation, is among the best things the composer ever wrote.

The work also is physically taxing to play. "For a younger man," Fleisher jokes.

Here's the story within the story: Wittgenstein, born in 1897 in Vienna, was a promising piano virtuoso who made his hometown debut in 1913, while still a teenager, but lost his right arm on the battlefield the following year.

Fleisher paints a picture of money, achievement, and tragedy in Wittgenstein's world: He came from "a wealthy Jewish family in Vienna," Fleisher explains. "They had one of the great salons of the time, turn of the century, in which Brahms was a frequent visitor as well as Mahler and Klimt, the painter.

"Wittgenstein's sister was one of Klimt's models for one of his sensual paintings. And Wittgenstein's brother Ludwig was the famous philosopher."

But the family patriarch, Karl, the father, was an overbearing industrialist who forbade three of the other children — Hans, Rudolph and Kurt — from pursuing musical careers. All three committed suicide.

Now, add Paul to the mix: "He loses his right arm," Fleisher says, "and he was difficult to deal with." And determined to keep performing. Paul Wittgenstein went on to commission left-handed concertos from Hindemith, Ravel, Prokofiev, Britten and others, and fought with most of them. There was a famous shouting match with Ravel; Wittgenstein thought the composer's Concerto for the Left Hand — which is completely ravishing and today a classic — was "over-orchestrated," Fleisher explains. "Not enough piano."

"That isn't what he'd paid for. And he insisted on the right to adjust certain passages and told Ravel that the performer is not the slave of the composer. And then Ravel shot back, 'Yes, the performer is the slave.' With which I agree."

A frustrated pianist

Wittgenstein was looking for something very 19th-century Romantic, with whistle-able tunes, and he wasn't getting it. He claimed not to understand a note of Prokofiev's work and never played it. He also "had unpleasant dealings," Fleisher says, with Britten, who composed a left-hand piece titled Diversions for Wittgenstein.

In May 1923, Hindemith, a 27-year-old composer of rising reputation, wrote a letter to Wittgenstein, announcing that he was ready to send the pianist his new concerto for left-hand. Read in retrospect, the letter sounds preemptive:

"I would be sorry if the piece didn't bring you joy — you might find it a bit strange to listen to at first — I wrote it with a great deal of love and like it very much myself," the composer explained. In a follow-up note, he said, "I am sure you will enjoy it after a time."

Wittgenstein didn't. He wouldn't perform it and may even have objected to its planned publication in the mid-'20s; it never appeared. Eventually, both Hindemith (whose wife was Jewish) and Wittgenstein fled the Nazis and moved to the United States. The piece disappeared, became a ghost.

Tonight, Fleisher gives it back its flesh and bones.

Incidentally, he will show off his two-handed technique, too, as soloist on a Mozart piano concerto that Wittgenstein, the traditionalist, would have loved.

http://www.andante.com/article/article.cfm?id=26051

Posted: Fri Oct 14, 2005 8:43 am
by Ralph
This I want to hear. Thanks for posting the article.