Nicholas McCarthy – graduation recital

One of the great pleasures of being an active member of the ‘Twitterati’ is the opportunity to connect with all sorts of interesting people around the world, who share similar interests to me. While many I will probably never meet outside the Twittersphere, I have met a few of my fellow Twitterers at concerts, for lunch and at other events (amusingly, at a recent Bachtrack party, a fellow reviewer and I identified each other by our Twitter call-signs, rather than our real names!). One of these is the left-handed pianist Nicholas McCarthy, and last night I attended Nicholas’s graduation recital in the lovely Amaryllis Fleming hall at the Royal College of Music.

Nicholas McCarthy

Nicholas was born without his right hand; that he plays the piano beautifully with just his left hand is remarkable in itself. What is more remarkable is that he only started playing the piano seriously when he was 14. He has studied with Lucy Parham at the Guildhall School of Music & Dance, and, since 2008, with Nigel Clayton at the RCM. This summer he will perform with the Paraorchestra (an initiative of conductor Charles Hazlewood) in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paraolympics.

There has been something of a theme of left-handed piano repertoire and performance on my blog recently: ‘Meet the Artist’ interviews with Nicholas and another left-handed pianist Keith Snell (who was forced to switch to left-handed repertoire when he developed focal dystonia in his right hand), and a guest post on the history of left-hand piano, also by Keith Snell. There are some very well-known works for the left-hand, perhaps most notably, piano music by Godowsky and Scriabin. For his graduation recital, Nicholas selected a programme which contained no music by these “greats” of the left-hand repertoire. Instead, he opened with the graceful Meditation from Prelude No. 1, Gounod’s transcription which intertwines Bach’s sublime Prelude in C from the WTC with Gounod’s ‘Ave Maria’. The rest of the programme was a mixture of well-known works (‘Casta Diva’ from Norma, arranged by Fumagalli, Morgen! by Strauss, transcribed for left-hand by Jonathan Mann, and Du Bist die Ruh, Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s song, transcribed by left-handed pianist Paul Wittgenstein) and less familiar repertoire, including a moody rendition of Britten’s The Miller of Dee (transcribed especially for Nicholas) and a work written for Nicholas by Anglo-French composer Tim Benjamin called Et Nous Les Os. With its unsettling clusters of sound high up in the treble and its plangent, sonorous chords in the bass, it was redolent of Liszt and Messiaen in both its scope and soundworld.

Nicholas is an elegant and understated performer. The movements and gestures he makes are so precise, so measured, so fluid that very soon one forgets he is playing with just his left hand. And his playing is not confined to the lower registers of the piano: far from it. At times, he moved nimbly between the furthest reaches of the keyboard as the score dictated, and the final piece of the programme, Der Erlkonig, provided a particularly physical work out. (As I said to him afterwards, “it’s difficult enough with both hands!”) His dynamic control was impressive, his tone and voicing poetic and subtly nuanced: achingly tender in the Meditation, growling and agitated in Erlkonig.

The whole programme was delightful, well planned with pleasing shifts in energy and mood, and beautifully presented. For me, the Tim Benajmin piece was the highlight, but I enjoyed every minute of it, and it was lovely to have the opportunity to meet Nicholas’s (very proud!) mum afterwards, and to congratulate Nick on a wonderful performance.

Nicholas’s Meet the Artist interview


Tim Benjamin composer

The Paraorchestra

Guest Post: A history of left-hand piano


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