Music Review

When one hand at piano is asked to speak for two

Pianist Leon Fleisher performing with conductor Kazushi Ono and the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood on Friday.
Hilary Scott
Pianist Leon Fleisher performing with conductor Kazushi Ono and the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood on Friday.

LENOX — Few 20th-century pianists left a more palpable mark on the modern piano repertoire than Paul Wittgenstein, who, even after losing his right arm as an Austrian soldier in World War I, chose to continue performing. He did so by commissioning many of the great composers of the day — including Strauss, Britten, and Prokofiev — to create works for the left hand alone, and the results still echo in concert halls down to this day.

Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand is the most widely played of the Wittgenstein commissions, and it became a particularly important piece for the pianist Leon Fleisher after a battle with focal dystonia made it impossible for him to perform with his right hand. In recent years, advances in treatment of this particular condition — specifically, Botox injections — have returned Fleisher’s right hand to service but it is, alas, a limited return. As he approaches his 85th birthday, left-hand works such as the Ravel still loom large in his repertoire.

Fleisher brought the concerto back to Tanglewood this weekend, performing it with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Friday night under the baton of Kazushi Ono. It is a musically probing but also a technically ingenious piece in which Ravel often creates textures so densely virtuosic that the ear rarely suspects they are the work of the left hand alone.


The soloist in this fiercely difficult piece of course must also do his part to keep up the illusion, and Wittgenstein once commented “it takes double the talent and energy for a left hand pianist to convey the impression of a musician with two arms.” At this stage in his career, however, Fleisher is clearly less interested in illusion than in a kind of expressive authenticity, as came through in this poetically inflected performance. Even without some of the clarity and brilliance he has brought to this work in the past, this account had a satisfying quality of distilled insight, and the lower dynamic registers in particular spoke with uncommon eloquence.

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Ono, who is principal conductor of the Opéra National de Lyon, opened the night with a gently disclosed if intermittently unfocused account of Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll” and concluded the evening with Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” Here Ono’s evident musicality and poised technique served this opulent score well, and the BSO’s virtuosity, section by section, came across to fine effect. Elita Kang, performing as concertmaster, capably negotiated the work’s many violin solos.

The evening also served as the first Tanglewood installment of the BSO’s “UnderScore Friday” series, in which musicians from the orchestra address the audience directly from the stage, presumably in an effort to make concerts more accessible to newcomers. The series originated beneath the gilded proscenium of Symphony Hall, and the comparatively casual atmosphere of Tanglewood might seem to make it less necessary here. Nevertheless, with principal horn James Sommerville taking up inaugural microphone duties, Friday’s crowd was clearly engaged before a single note was played.

In other Tanglewood news, it’s been a big summer already for John Harbison, who was honored last week with the Mark M. Horblit “Merit Award” for distinguished composition, and whose six symphonies are now being released by the orchestra as digital downloads. In addition, on Thursday night the BSO hosted the musicians of Emmanuel Music in a repeat performance of Harbison’s opera “The Great Gatsby,” given its belated Boston premiere a few weeks ago in Jordan Hall (and reviewed at that time). In Thursday’s outing, the orchestral playing under Ryan Turner sounded more polished but also lacked something of the visceral heat and intensity that made the earlier account so forceful. The concert nevertheless represented another important step in the return to circulation of this admired opera, a work that, for several years after its Met premiere, seemed to have all but disappeared.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at