Hans Abrahamsen’s Piano Concerto Left, Alone, receiving its UK première, is aptly named, as it is solely written for the left hand. This is neither a novelty, nor an original idea. Maurice Ravel composed the most famous work of this kind as a commission from Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm on the Eastern Front in the Great War. Britten and Prokofiev also wrote for him, and other one-handed pianists have commissioned a number of concerti from less celebrated composers. Abrahamsen’s concerto differs in so much as it is the composer rather than the commissioner who does not enjoy the full use of both hands, and this could be clearly seen in the message of the music – themes of solitude and isolation.

Alexandre Tharaud © Marco Borggreve
Alexandre Tharaud
© Marco Borggreve
The concerto has six movements, three in each of two parts. Abrahamsen is a master of tonal shade, colour and temperature, and with these attributes he is able to aurally paint strong imagery and narrative. The initial temperature of the piece was ice cold, with shrill shrieking strings slicing across a fast paced jerky bass rhythm. The second movement of the first part, entitled Slowly walking, continued the chill through highly spaced mid-to-upper range piano chords with disjointed rhythmic effects from claves. By now it was obvious that the piano and orchestra were on separate journeys. The orchestral landscape was moving from the terrifyingly sublime in the Romantic sense to eerie and ethereal in the Gothic sense. The piano displayed a sensitive and human need to unite with the environment, but never quite became one with it. The work continued in this manner into Part Two, which included some lovely harmonic sounds being created by Alexandre Tharaud leaning into the sound-board of the concert grand and plucking the strings pizzicato-style.

Just when the temperature had begun to thaw, Part Five came in with a turn, the tempo became irate and agitated lower strings buzzed like a mass of malicious mosquitoes in Prestissimo temptestuoso. The somewhat alarming atmosphere was worked through with some jarring orchestral rhythmic cross-hatching and something of left hand sprinting from Tharaud so that by the time the work concluded, the orchestra and pianist came to converge in a more temperate clime – or as the final movement is entitled ‘Suddenly in flying time, Fairy Tale Time’.

The performance by Tharaud and the CBSO was full of genuine enthusiasm and the superb technical execution and artistic interpretation that one expects from musicians of this calibre. Conductor Ilan Volkov handled the complexity of the piece with aplomb, ensuring a warm audience reaction. I personally found the piece very interesting, and I could find much to admire in the creative skill and vision of the composer. However, it is not a particularly enjoyable piece. There is great harmony, rhythmic tension, imagery and atmosphere, but too little in melody to be able to recall anything more than the vague impression that it left upon me. That impression was, until the very end of the final movement, a feeling of being a little cold and unsettled.  

This impression was the exact opposite of that created by the first piece of the evening, Debussy’s Children’s Corner, which only goes to show how just how versatile Abrahamsen is as an orchestral arranger. Originally written for piano it was arranged for orchestra by André Caplet in 1911, and this is the version with which most of us are likely to be familiar. This arrangement by Abrahamsen was refreshing, much more subtle and sophisticated than Caplet’s, yet also more vivid. The famous final movement for example, The Golliwogg’s Cakewalk, was coherent as an orchestral piece in its own right rather than merely an orchestrated transcription of a piano rag. Unlike Left, alone, the whole six-movement suite had a continuously warm yet appropriately light and witty ambiance.

The second half of the concert was Mahler’s Symphony no. 4 in G major. Again a creditable performance by Maestro Volkov and the CBSO, though I did feel the first two movements were a little sterile. Yes, the strings were sumptuous and there was nothing I could fault in the conducting or playing, just that I was unmoved. It was all a little bit too safe. However, by the third movement I began to transcend my critical ear and lose myself in the beauty of Mahler’s blue sky vision, ascending heaven-bound. This is what Mahler wanted to achieve, and the CBSO delivered. Soprano soloist Sarah Tynan put in a perfectly measured invitation to the heavenly-realm and Volkov, once he finally had the hall in the grasp of his hand, did not let it slip. By the end I was entranced.