The Sound of One Hand

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THE BOTTOM LINE: Despite his disability, the pianist retains his formidable musical intelligence and masterly touch.

Two functioning hands would seem to be the minimum basic requirement for a concert career, but fortunately musical history says otherwise. When the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, brother of the philosopher Ludwig, lost his right arm serving with the Austrian army in World War I, he reacted with logical positivism: he commissioned several leading composers to write works for the left hand alone.

Warfare has not claimed any pianistic right arms lately, but various mysterious maladies such as carpal tunnel syndrome, progressive degeneration of the nerves and repetitive stress syndrome have struck a number of pianists, most prominently Gary Graffman and Leon Fleisher. Graffman, a dazzling stylist whose troubles began when he first sprained the fourth finger on his right hand while playing an unresponsive instrument in Berlin, has been a left- handed pianist since 1979. Fleisher, a towering performer whose 1958-62 cycle of Beethoven concertos with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra remains a pinnacle of modern recordings, first noticed a loss of feeling in his right hand at the peak of his career in 1964. A year later, at age 38, he ! was incapable of using it at the keyboard, and he ceased performing his full repertoire.

Surgery at Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital in 1981 brought Fleisher some temporary relief, and in 1982 he made a two-fisted comeback, playing Franck's Symphonic Variations in Baltimore. But the treatment didn't last. Other careers beckoned, including teaching at the Peabody Conservatory of Music and conducting, but the music world lamented what might have been.

Now, on a new CD, Fleisher has put Wittgenstein's and his own misfortune to good use, playing three of the pieces commissioned by the Austrian. The Ravel Concerto in D Major is so powerfully conceived and artfully composed that its limitation is hardly apparent; in many ways it is superior to the same composer's two-handed Concerto in G Major. Fleisher digs into the dark, angst- ridden work, plumbing its depths with the unimpaired musical intelligence that has always marked his playing. (Would that his accompanists, Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony, were on the same wavelength.) He sprints through Prokofiev's steely Concerto No. 4 with aplomb and turns in a glittering performance of Britten's infrequently heard but urbane and witty Diversions for Piano and Orchestra.

Happily, the recording is just the first of what promises to be Fleisher's complete traversal of the left-hand repertoire, including solo pieces, chamber music and other concertos by the likes of Scriabin, Saint-Saens, Hindemith and Richard Strauss -- virtually unknown music by major composers that fully deserves wider hearing. A virtue of necessity, perhaps. But what a virtue.