Piano Concerto for the Left Hand

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Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Piano Concerto for the Left Hand

Op. 17

About this work

Although Korngold is most strongly associated with the sweeping post-romantic style he brought to Hollywood in the 1930s (and which became a basis for the "Hollywood Sound"), in his earlier career as Austria's most talented young composer he sometimes adopted a more modern, neo-classical sound. When he was requested to write a piano concerto by the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm in World War I, Korgnold chose the leaner sound of neo-classicism, perhaps because it would be less likely to require the heavy richness of the typical two-handed piano sound. The result is a fascinating work that shows the twenty-five-year-old composer trying out a variety of styles. This unusual uncertainty of voice puzzled audiences and displeased Wittgenstein. Only with the resurgence of interest in Korngold's kind of tonal twentieth century music has this concerto found some favor with audiences.

The concerto is in one very long movement of thirty-five minutes' duration. The sound of the piece is unusually dry. The piano part is treated as a part of the orchestral texture, rather than a separate solo voice, yet is exceptionally difficult. Part of the fascination (and frustration) of the piece comes in how Korngold often seems to be out to defeat his naturally heroic nature. For instance, the main theme, marked "heroically, with fire and power" should be the basis of a dramatic struggle and emerge victorious. But the battle is not engaged, the theme goes nowhere. On the other hand, a "Round Dance" that happens later in the work would serve as a dramatic fulcrum, but its themes are curiously noncommital. On the other hand, there are many passages of exceptional imagination both in thematic material and its treatment. The orchestration is very colorful, showing the absorption of the colorful style of French Impressionism. Korngold uses the glittering sounds of harp, celesta, glockenspiel, and xylophone imaginatively.