The best classical music for piano left hand
12 August 2014, 12:56
In celebration of International Left Handers Day, we're investigating the top ten pieces of piano music composed specifically for the left hand, as chosen by one-handed piano virtuoso, Nicholas McCarthy.
1. Prelude and Nocturne Op. 9 - Scriabin
After injuring his right hand learning some of Liszt's more challenging music, Scriabin was forced to re-evaluate his priorities and change the way he composed, shifting the emphasis onto his uninjured left hand. Much of the music he went on to write sounds fiendishly difficult, making the most of the capabilities of his only working hand - but he also composed two pieces for left hand only. After much soul-searching, the result is this, one of Scriabin's most beautiful and introspective pieces.
2. Piano Concerto for the Left Hand - Ravel
Even before this piece was premiered in 1932, pianist Alfred Cortot had made an arrangement for piano two-hands and orchestra. But Ravel, who wrote the music especially for Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein after he lost his arm in the war, forbade the performance of the new arrangement. It's not a wonder he was frustrated: before writing the work, he studied Saint-Saëns' left hand études religiously, absorbing as many of his techniques as possible.
3. Chaconne in D minor - Bach/Brahms
There's nothing like getting stuck in to some truly meaty Bach keyboard music. So, imagine Clara Schumann's frustration when she injured her right hand and could no longer play the music she knew and loved. Luckily, Brahms came to the rescue with this ingenious arrangement of his hypnotic Chaconne in D minor. It may only be played with one hand, but Brahms manages to bring out every one of Bach's original voices. Genius.
4. Etude Op. 25 No. 12 'Ocean' - Chopin arr. Godowsky
They're known as the most difficult piano pieces in the left-hand repertoire, and after listening to these waves upon waves of notes, it's easy to see why. Chopin's études - challenging enough at the best of times - have been transformed by Polish composer Godowsky into a series of incredible studies and mind-bending technical exercises, including transferring the technically difficult passages between hands, interweaving separate études to form one individual piece, and transcribing this entire étude for left hand solo.
5. Three Improvisations - Bridge
Eerie and beautiful, these 'improvisations' by English composer Frank Bridge were written for his friend Douglas Fox, who lost his arm during the First World War. With sparing use of the piano pedals, the heavy bass chords ring out as the left hand glides over the piano's upper register.
6. Piano Concerto for Left Hand - Korngold
The man behind Ravel's piano concerto for left hand, Paul Wittgenstein, is really the man to thank when it comes to commissioning music for the left hand. He approached Richard Strauss, Prokofiev, and Hindemith - but it's Korngold who stole the show. Wittgenstein was so happy with this work that he commissioned another piece, a suite for 2 violins, cello and piano left-hand, Op. 23.
7. Diversions - Britten
Looking at the score, it's hard to believe this explosive piece is written for just one hand. With its cascading quavers and impressive passages jumping across the entire length of the piano, this is the ultimate in left hand piano fireworks - and once again, we have Paul Wittgenstein to thank for its existence.
8. Piano Sonata in C Minor - Reinecke
While Reinecke may not be the most high-profile of composers, his Opus 179 sonata has made its mark on the world of left hand piano music. There's a reason for that: give this a listen for a healthy dose of bombastic, Romantic piano music.
9. Six études for the left hand - Saint-Saëns
Despite their sheer brilliance, Saint-Saëns' piano études are often overlooked. Every movement requires absolute independence for each individual finger, regardless of hand shape or strength. It's these pieces Ravel studied so diligently when embarking on his left hand piano concerto, and it's easy to see why.
10. 4 Special Studies - Reger
German composer Max Reger brings grace and personality to these cheery piano works, making even the most simple techniques sound impressive. Watch how the left hand trips over the piano with ease, bringing out individual parts across the entire range of the piano.