Paul Wittgenstein (brother of famous philosopher Ludwig) was a well-known pianist before he lost his arm in the First World War. Instead of quitting music, he perfected his left hand skills and commissioned a few composers, including Britten, Hindemith, Prokofiev and R. Strauss to write pieces for him. One of the pieces written, and one of the few still performed regularly, is Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, played tonight by Nikolai Lugansky.

Netherlands Radio Philharmonic © Simon van Boxtel
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic
© Simon van Boxtel

The incredible skill Wittgenstein must have had is still heard in the music, because when you close your eyes you can only imagine two hands playing it, not one. Lugansky’s characteristic style (that I think makes him one of the most exciting concert pianists around) still shone through, his preference for loud volume never overshadows the more refined and beautiful melodies of the piece. The concerto has no movements, it is a one-part piece that lasts almost 20 minutes. After the orchestral opening the first cadenza appears, introducing some of the themes of the concerto and setting the scene. The concerto is typical Ravel in many ways, not least of all in its exciting rhythms that take over the concerto half way through. The dialogue between the piano and orchestra was executed perfectly and Serge Baudo made sure the pace was kept up thereby leading the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Nikolai Lugansky in a truly great performance.

Francis Poulenc’s Litanies à la vierge noire is a piece of breathtaking beauty. Scored for orchestra and women’s chorus, it is a devout and personal piece. It was written in 1936 after Poulenc’s visit to the pilgrim’s town of Rocamadour in France. At the time he had only recently learnt of the death of his close friend, Pierre-Octave Ferroud and his death together with the visit, inspired Poulenc’s return to Catholicism. It is therefore one of the first of many deeply religious works of Poulenc. At Rocamadour he picked up a text containing the Liturgies of the black virgin, and set it to music. His grief for his friend can definitely be discerned, as despite the almost angelic sound of the female chorus, there is still an undertone of tragedy, of sadness. The most important line, that often returns, is “priez pour nous” (“pray for us”) and the National Jeugdkoor sang this line with such passion and sincerity that it was difficult not to tear up.

The Nocturnes by Claude Debussy were written in their current form – for orchestra and female chorus - in 1899, though an earlier version – for violin and orchestra – was written in 1892. The Nocturnes contains three movements: Nuages (Clouds), Fêtes (Festivals) and Sirènes (Sirenes). Each piece had its own idiosyncratic melodies and are clearly recognizable (the female chorus in Sirènes really did create the seductive yet calming sound of the mythological sirenes) yet the Nocturnes still sounds like a whole. It is a incredibly beautiful and also relaxing piece, Fêtes really does remind you of a festival, with dances and a wonderful atmosphere, but never does it get too exciting.Nocturnes is the kind of work you´d want to listen to after a difficult and stressful day, to calm down. It also worked exceptionally well on a Sunday morning, and was a beautiful ending to the concert.

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