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No Composer Left Behind

Rachmaninoff's Southpaw

Left-handed people have it difficult. They have an International Lefthanders Day—today—but they still can’t buy a can opener that will work for them. The discrimination, admittedly, has receded significantly from the days when left handed kids were forcefully ‘converted’, no matter the consequences. But remaining lefties were still in the 70s thought of as somehow inferior. All that’s rather surprising, given the enormous talent and political clout this roughly 8+ percent strong minority has brought forth. (All but two of the last seven Presidents were left handed—and still never an executive order on the availability of left-handed butter knifes?)

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Mozart, Così fan tutte, R.Jacobs / Concerto Cologne / Fink, Gens, Güra et al.
Harmonia Mundi 901663-65

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Beethoven, Late Piano Sonatas, M.Pollini
DG Originals 448740

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Schumann, Violin Sonatas 1-3, C.Widmann’s & D.Várjon
ECM 001221902

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Rachmaninoff, Préludes, B.Berezovsky
Mirare 004

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Ravel, Piano Concertos, K.Zimerman, P.Boulez / Cleveland O, LSO

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Prokofiev, Piano Sonata no.9 et al., Alexei Lubimov
But the declaration of the anomaly of left-handedness as something inferior must go back very far, as it is ingrained in almost every language (even those that aren’t written from left to right, which would perhaps have been a telling detail). In a lovely essay in Die Welt, Theo Semmler collects some of these etymological roots of “right=good” and “left=evil”. The word “right” apparently comes from the Indo-European root “reg-“ from which can be derived words like “reign” and “straight”. Eastern languages have the common root “provo”, where ‘rightness’ (pravyi) is related to truth (pravda) and “pravo”, which can mean a host of positive adjectives (title, freedom, liberty, power, right, law, faculty…). The Romanesque languages take their cue from the Latin “directum/dirigire” (to make straight). “Droit” for the French, “derecho” for the Spanish.

The roots for left-handedness, meanwhile, are all pejorative. The British boast the classy colloquial “cack-handed”, the etymology of which I prefer to skip. The Latin root is “sinistra”, but that didn’t keep the Spanish from adopting the foreign—Basque—“izquierda”. “Half-handed”. And the left handed person is a “zurdo” – a “southpaw”; not too far from “ruffian”. And Heinrich Himmler—had it not been so real this would have a touch of comically absurd evil to it—stipulated research into the link of left-handedness and the “mental deficiency” of homosexuals.

Lists of “famous left-handed people” can be googled with ease, and they make for good trivia. The purpose of this little International Lefthanders Day tribute is to showcase my favorite left-handed music. Not music for, but by the left hand. (If you are looking for Paganini in vain, it’s because I wanted to include only composers that made left-handed people proud.)

There is Mozart, of course. Allegedly left-handed, possibly ambidextrous (= “two right hands”). I’ve not found evidence that he was, in fact, left-handed (he would very likely have been converted, anyway), but he is so often mentioned among the famous left-handed that I might as well include him. It would be particularly poignant to highlight a recording with left-handed Glenn Gould (the Stockholm performance of Concerto no.24!), but my favorite Mozart recording—judging from what instantly came to mind—is Rene Jacob’s Così fan tutte.

And there is Beethoven, and with him we know from Anton Schindler, his reasonably reliable biographer and “unpaid secretary”, that he was left-handed. Maurizio Pollini’s recording of the last five Piano Sonatas is Beethoven to me, in all his left-handed glory.

My favorite Robert Schumann is a fairly recent recording: Carolin Widmann’s and Dénes Várjon’s Violin Sonatas get us in touch with the two personalities of Schumann: from glorious vitality to darkly teetering on the edge. I can take or leave (especially leave) a good amount of the left-handed composer Rachmaninoff’s output, but I can’t be without Martha Argerich’s recording of the Third Piano concerto and—more importantly—Boris Berezovsky’s Préludes. Rachmaninoff-as-Chopin: who would have thought it could work so marvelously? It’s the recording that has ended my previously troubled relationship with opp.23 and 32.

Ravel is counted among the left-handed composers, too, and what fine coincidence that my favorite Ravel recording consists of his concerto for… left hand. It comes with the more famous concerto for both, and Krystian Zimerman provides all three hands, accompanied by Pierre Boulez and the Cleveland (ambidextrous) and London (left) Symphony Orchestras. Sergei Prokofiev, not a great fan of Pravda, and left-handed: I love his Ninth Piano Sonata from 1913. Smoothly powerful, like a Turkish wrestler with oiled muscles (quite different from Richter), it is Alexei Lubimov who provides the Prokofiev moment I enjoy most on his superb disc titled “Messe Noire”.

In light of all this magnificence, one is left      wondering.