Since graduating from the Royal College of Music in 2012, pianist Nicholas McCarthy has enjoyed a busy schedule of concerts, including performing with Charles Hazelwood’s Paraorchestra at the closing ceremony of the Paralympics last summer, and recitals in the UK, USA and beyond. For a young professional musician at just 24, this is pretty impressive. What is more remarkable is that Nicholas has only one hand.
Born without his right hand, he was the first left-handed pianist to graduate from the Royal College of Music, and is making a name for himself as a champion of left-handed piano repertoire, both well-known and less familiar. He has had music composed for him, and he writes his own transcriptions of works for two hands, including Chopin’s fearsome G minor Ballade, which, as anyone who has tried to play it will attest (myself included), is hard enough with both hands, let alone one! The Ballade was the closing piece in an interesting and engaging evening recital by Nicholas at the beautiful Wren church of St James’s Piccadilly.
Nicholas is no novelty act. He is a serious musician whose technique and musical understanding allow him to produce a wealth of sounds, colours and textures, from the most delicate pianissimos to full-bodied fortissimos. When I was privileged to hear him at his graduation recital last summer, I was particularly struck by the beauty of his cantabile playing: there is a sense of the fingers in constant contact with the keys, drawing out sound without undue pressure (an aspect of piano technique which is hard to master well).
There is plenty of repertoire for the left-hand alone. This is, in part, due to composers writing studies for the left-hand alone as technical exercises to enable two-handed pianists to develop their technique; and also a consequence of the First World War, when many men returned from the battlefields with arms missing. Most notable amongst these was Paul Wittgenstein (brother of the philosopher Ludwig), whose right arm was amputated after he was shot in the elbow, and who who commissioned many composers to write for him, notably Ravel, Britten, Prokofiev, and Martinu.
Nicholas opened his recital with a Fantasy in G minor by Bach, arranged by Liszt. Originally composed for the organ, Liszt’s transcription retains many of the colours and textures of the instrument, and Nicholas brought a Baroque richness and authoritative tone to his performance.
Scriabin’s Prelude and Nocturne Op 9 are some of the most well-known works for left-hand, and Nicholas introduced the pieces engagingly, explaining that these were special to him as they were the first works for left-hand he learnt. In the Nocturne in particular we were able to appreciate the elegance of Nicholas’s playing in this kind of romantic repertoire.
The programme also included a number of works transcribed for left-hand by Geza Zichy, a pupil of Liszt who had lost his right arm during a hunting accident in his youth. In Zichy’s transcriptions of Schubert’s Der Erlkönig and Chopin’s ‘Military’ Polonaise Op 40/1, both extremely physically challenging for the pianist, the sheer athleticism required to pull off such pieces was very evident: Nicholas’s playing is not confined to the lower part of the piano keyboard (my friend commented in the interval that Nicholas must have 10 fingers on his left hand to cope with such feats of virtuosity!). What was particularly evident in these pieces was the range of textures and depth of sound Nicholas was able to achieve: indeed, if one did not know he had only one hand, one would never know from the intense and varied soundworld he can create. Each piece was introduced by Nicholas in a friendly and interesting manner: the anecdote about Italian pianist Adolfo Fumagalli preferring to play with his left hand only so that he could smoke a cigar in his right was very funny.
I was very curious to hear Nicholas’s own transcription of Chopin’s G minor Ballade. Having attempted to learn this piece myself a few years ago, I am well aware of its pitfalls, its vertiginous virtuosity (rapid passages, double octaves). It is a test for even the most proficient pianist. Nicholas’s account combined a tender lyricism in the first theme with sparkling virtuoso passages and powerful emotional contrasts. It was a convincing performance and a fitting close to an impressive concert. His encore was perfectly judged: Earl Wilde’s transcription of Gershwin’s wistful The Man I Love.
Nicholas performs at St George’s Bristol on 24 October in a solo lunchtime concert, and on 16 November in Britten’s Diversions for piano left-hand and orchestra, a work which has barely been performed in public since Paul Wittgenstein played it at the Proms in 1950. Further information about all of Nicholas’s concerts here