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Pianist Ivan Ilić performs the Cadenza from Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand

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Uploaded on Jun 8, 2011

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In one of the many ironies of music history, Paul Wittgenstein has become one of the most famous pianists of the twentieth century. It is ironic because there is little evidence that he had the talent that merits such a reputation.

Prokofiev was merciless. He wrote, "I don't see any special talent in [Paul Wittgenstein's] left hand. It may be that his misfortune has turned out to be a stroke of good luck, for with only his left hand he is unique but maybe with both hands he would not have stood out from a crowd of mediocre pianists." Ouch.

One thing Wittgenstein DID have was a hell of a story, not to mention deep pockets. In fact, it would be difficult to find another pianist whose life story involved as much drama. On the surface of things, the story is that of someone who overcame tremendous adversity to make his mark in history.

Things certainly began well enough; Paul was born into one of the most prominent, wealthy families in Vienna. He enjoyed a greatly privileged upbringing, the best of everything was at his fingertips. While he was still a child, his parents invited the most famous musicians in the city to come play for them privately.

Although all eight Wittgenstein children were musical and idolized musicians, some perhaps more talented than Paul, it was Paul that had a burning desire to make his mark and become a major musical figure.

His younger brother Ludwig was just as ambitious and succeeded in becoming one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century. As Paul gave his concert debut in 1913 at Vienna's prestigious Grosser Musikvereinsaal, his younger brother seeked out Bertrand Russell in Cambridge (successfully it turns out, he became Russell's protégé).

When Austria declared war on July 28th, Paul immediately volunteered for duty. Less than a month later, on August 23rd, he was shot and seriously wounded by the Russians, only to awaken as a prisoner of war with his right arm amputated.

Astonishingly, he made the decision early on to continue his career as a pianist after the war, despite his tremendous new handicap. Or perhaps he shrewdly saw an opportunity to distinguish himself from the pack, as Prokofiev was to remark 20 years later. His career has not started especially brilliantly...but what to play?

Paul must have been aware that there was a growing repertoire of pieces for the left-hand alone, by one Leopold Godowsky. It turns out that Godowsky was the director of piano at the Imperial Academy of music in Vienna from 1909 onwards, and very well known in Viennese music circles following his début there in 1904.

Paul had heard stories of Godowsky's arrangements of old warhorses like Chopin's Revolutionary Etude, to be played with only the left hand.

During his convalescence in Russia, he tried to figure out how Godowsky did it, and was convinced that he would make a triumphant return to the piano.

Over the next several decades, he would use his substantial inheritance and family connections to commission works from the most famous composers of the age, including Ravel, Prokofiev, Strauss, Hindemith, Britten, Korngold...he picked the most famous composers in Europe, but unfortunately didn't understand their music, and wasn't very diplomatic about it either.

He had a huge falling out with Ravel, whom he paid the equivalent of $70,000 in today's money for a 20 minute concerto. He made changes to the work, to Ravel's horror, and they never reconciled afterwards.

Of all the works he commissioned the Concerto by Ravel is by far the most famous, and the extensive solo cadenza, that Wittgenstein had great trouble with, is a brilliant cascade of crystalline notes, performed here by Ivan Ilić.

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