Nicholas McCarthy is a pianist, who was born in 1989 without a right hand. He was drawn to the piano at the age of fourteen (relatively late for most prodigies), motivated by listening to a friend play Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 53 (“Waldstein”) piano sonata in C major. He was persistent enough to get into the prestigious Royal College of Music in London; and in 2012 he became the only left-handed pianist to graduate in the 130-year history of that institution.
This Friday (February 5) will see the Warner Classics release of his debut album Solo, currently available for pre-order from Amazon.com. The album is a little less than 75 minutes in duration. It has sixteen tracks, almost all of which are arrangements, three of them by McCarthy himself. Of the four pieces explicitly written for the left hand, one is a world premiere recording, a nocturne by British composer Nigel Hess written on commission explicitly for McCarthy. Two of the other three pieces are by Russian composers, Alexander Scriabin and Felix Blumenthal. The remaining original piece is one of Earl Wild’s Seven Virtuoso Ëtudes on Popular Songs. All of Wild’s sources were by George Gershwin; and the one for “The Man I Love,” which McCarthy selected, bears a (presumably) intentional family resemblance to Franz Liszt’s “Un sospiro,” (the third of what he called his three “concert études”). In contrast to Liszt’s étude, however, Wild’s is supposed to be played by the left hand alone.
Among the arrangers, the one with the most enduring reputation is the Polish-American pianist Leopold Godowsky, who is probably most respected as a teacher and most remembered as a show-off virtuoso. He compiled a collection of 53 “studies,” all of which involved reconceptions of études composed by Frédéric Chopin. Presumably he wrote these for pedagogical purposes, but it would not be surprising to learn that every one of them was used as an encore piece for one of his recitals. Several of those studies were written for the left hand alone; and McCarthy included two of them on his recording, those based on the third étude from the Opus 10 collection, which Chopin composed in E major and Godowsky transposed into D-flat major, and the twelfth from the Opus 25 collection, composed in C minor and transposed by Godowsky into C-sharp minor. In this context it is worth noting that the Blumenfeld selection is an étude dedicated to Godowsky.
Two of McCarthy’s own arrangements come from operas, the intermezzo from Pietro Mascagni’s one-act “Cavalaria rusticana” (rustic chivalry) and “Summertime” from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. His other arrangement is of another sort of intermezzo, “I Giorni” (the days) by Ludovico Einaudi, which the BBC used in the background of advertising for its arts and culture programs. There are also two other opera aria arrangements, Giacomo Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” (oh, my beloved daddy), arranged by Frédéric Meinders, and Vincenzo Bellini’s “Casta diva” (chaste goddess), arranged by Adolfo Fumagalli.
This should give a good sense of the breadth of McCarthy’s repertoire. Perhaps what is most important about this recording is that his technique rises to the level of his ambitions. Nevertheless, all too often there is a sense that the music behind all of that technique is lacking. One can appreciate that a single hand cannot always deliver the necessary timing to honor the phrasing of the music as it was originally written or the necessary changes in dynamic levels to capture the phrasing. The problem is that each of the tracks tends to be more about the skill of the performer than the intentions of the composer, and one can develop a strong respect for that skill through far fewer selections than were offered on this recording. Once that respect has been established, the attentive listener is likely to feel that what remains is “more of the same,” which is as unfortunate for the composers as it is for the performer.