Ivan Ilić's Channel

  1. 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 would merit such an illustrious 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 such a dramatic turning point. On the surface, 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 (Brahms, Strauss, Mahler) to come play for them privately.

    Although all eight Wittgenstein children were musical and idolized musicians, (several siblings were perhaps more naturally talented than him), 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. While Paul gave his concert debut in 1913 at Vienna's prestigious Grosser Musikvereinsaal, his younger brother seeked out Bertrand Russell in the halls of Cambridge University (successfully it turns out; he became Russell's protégé).

    Seven months later, when Austria declared war on July 28th, Paul immediately volunteered for duty, which was in keeping with his family's sense of patriotism and honor. Less than a month later, on August 23rd, he was shot and seriously wounded by the Russians, his elbow shattered. He woke up in a hospital bed, only to discover that he was a Russian prisoner of war. His right arm had been amputated.

    Astonishingly, he made the decision early on to continue his career as a pianist after the war, despite his tremendous new handicap. 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 would he play?

    Paul must have been aware that there was a growing repertoire of pieces for the left-hand alone, by Leopold Godowsky. 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 triumphant début there in 1904.

    As Paul was living in Vienna in between 1904 and 1914, and very plugged in to the music scene, he must have been aware of Godowsky's infamous arrangements of works 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 following the war.

    But he knew that the most impressive way to début as a one-armed pianist would be for the most celebrated composers of the day to write pieces specifically for him. He started with Joseph Labor, a prominent Viennese composer who was buddies with his brother Ludwig. Labor agreed immediately, and paul knew that he was on to something.

    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, and not just those who were at his doorstep in Vienna. Prokofiev, Strauss, Hindemith, Britten, Korngold...and, of course, Ravel.

    It was a real A-list of composers; it is difficult to think of another person for whom so many first-rate composers wrote works in such a short span of time. However, there were complications.

    Paul was musically quite conservative and didn't like most of the pieces that were written for him. He told the composers to write "however they wished" as long as they were piano concertos "so [he] could be in the spotlight". But harmonically and formally few of the works were in his beloved 19th century mold, which perplexed and annoyed him. He wasn't very diplomatic about it either.

    He paid handsomely for his commissions and expected the composers to be accommodating in return. His idea of customer service was similar to something one expects in America in 2011, not the Old World in the 1930's. Great composers tend to have huge egos to match; conflict was inevitable.

    He had a particularly bad 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 which he included at the premiere, to Ravel's horror, and a long awaited reconciliation never materialized.

    But many of the works themselves are excellent music, and therefore Paul does deserve a lot of credit, for without him the works would not exist. In the end, he did make his mark; his persistence paid off in the end.

    Of all the works he commissioned the Concerto by Ravel is by far the most famous, with the most creative orchestration. 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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Ivan Ilić's Channel

Ivan Ilić

"A pianist of real personality, his name is one to remember." Le Monde de la Musique
"Spirited and yet very carefully distilled playing." International Record Review
"Fidelity to what the score says is impeccable." Classical Music Magazine

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