Everyday Rather Live in Classic Eras

The interview of the inspirational one hand pianist Nicholas McCarthy

Most people who’ve marked the history of left-hand repertoire came to it through injury or trauma as concert pianists who lost an arm or lost the use of their hand. You are a unique example.  Are there advantages to coming to one-hand piano, as it were, from scratch?

NM: The classical music industry is quite a tricky industry, and it’s a challenge to try to carve a name for yourself with this repertoire which is predominantly unknown – most people are only aware of Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand. A pianist I was talking to the other day didn’t even realise that Prokofiev’s Fourth Concerto is for left hand alone, and considering Prokofiev only wrote five concertos, it’s quite astounding.

It was certainly a challenge to try to convince people that there was enough repertoire – there are just over 30 piano concertos for left hand and there’s so much solo work available for left hand alone. There’s more than just that Ravel Left Hand Concerto and the Scriabin Nocturne. In the very core classical world of Mozart and Beethoven people say, “How could you possibly not play Tchaikovsky’s concerto?” Then that’s it – you can’t have a career. My crusade is to convince people that, ‘Yes, you can, there’s lots of other music out there.”

Have you had to be resilient on this crusade?

NM: I’m certainly thick-skinned! I think my disability – having been born with one hand and not knowing any different all my life – has made me. Obviously all of us have had the odd thing at school said to us that’s not very nice. If someone ever said something negative I was very quick, it didn’t bother me. I’ve taken that attitude into the classical music industry as well, which I think is a good thing. You have to have that resilient nature.

Even the composers like Ravel who wrote for the one-handed pianist Paul Wittgenstein were snarky about his playing behind his back. He had to fight for his legacy. What does Paul Wittgenstein represent for you?

NM: I attribute my career to him. Without him I wouldn’t have a career, because I wouldn’t have those massive concertos by famous composers everyone knows and loves, and the Ravel concerto. He also contributed to so much solo piano repertoire which I play in recitals, and there’s one of his arrangements on my album. I like that whole narrative, and then of me continuing that arranging tradition. I would have loved to have met him. I hear so many different things about what he was like as a person; he was such a fascinating character.

Who are your other piano idols?

NM: Martha Argerich, I think, is everyone’s piano idol.  She was one of the first pianists that really made me sit up – the jaw-dropping virtuosity and musicality. I’m a really big fan of Khatia Buniatishvili, similar to Argerich in a lot of ways. I just love watching her play and she has that deep, deep musicality.

What do you think about pianists who take on the left-hand repertoire as a technical exercise, rather than out of necessity?

NM: I find it incredibly brave of them to do as well. For me, naturally always having a very strong left hand because I was only born with left hand, I find left-hand repertoire relatively comfortable to play as a natural instinct – the whole balance issue. Whereas for two-handed pianists who are used to sitting perfectly balanced and poised at a piano then to go to one hand, it must be incredibly difficult to switch and to manage that balance. I’m already unbalanced in my body anyway so my body has had to rebalance itself naturally over the year.

When I look at two-handed pianists playing this repertoire – I sometimes see Leon Fleischer grabbing onto the piano with his right hand – I think to myself that Wittgenstein and I couldn’t do that; we are in a little league there where we have no option of grabbing on for dear life to the end of the piano!

So it’s more physically demanding having to move your body to cover the entire length of the keyboard with one hand?

NM: Playing a 90-minute recital of Beethoven is different to playing a 90-minute recital of left-hand repertoire. It’s different in the concentration required and in the left-hand repertoire I think you have to have a much higher stamina than a standard concert pianist; it’s almost like playing two Rach 3s off the trot really, because your left and does not stop for the entire programme, unless you’re talking in between or taking a bow.

Do you enjoy playing the Ravel concerto?

NM: If I could perform that concerto every day of my life I’d be a very happy man! I’m playing it again after the album comes out.

What works are suitable for transcribing for left hand?

I have two minds all the time; Sometimes I think, of course I wouldn’t arrange any Rachmaninov because it’s all big chords in both hands, but at the same time I think, ‘Who would have thought that Godowsky could have arranged 23 of the 24 Chopin preludes for left hand alone? But he did!’

It’s something I really enjoy doing. I started to arrange out of necessity – not because there wasn’t repertoire there but because my audiences were demanding certain pieces from me and I like to provide what I’m being asked to do. And I went away and thought about it and they’ve proved to be very popular pieces. That’s great for me as an arranger and it helps me think about the piece in a different way.

Judging by the programme of your debut album Solo, you’re an opera fan: there are arrangements ofO Mio Babbino, the Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana, and Casta Diva.

NM: I love opera and I love that Lisztian era of the operatic transcriptions. Casta Diva is an original left-hand work by Fumigalli, an Italian composer who was a very famous concert pianist in his day, but who used to write left-hand transcriptions of opera works for himself to play just so he could smoke a cigar on stage at the same time!

We know and love these arias – I’d love to sing them! – so my way of being able to perform them is for solo left hand. And having them for one hand is like one voice. As a performer I feel that gives it authenticity, as opposed to a very elaborate two-hand filigree, it keeps the simplicity of one voice or one hand.

The acclaimed British composer Nigel Hess has also composed a new piece for this album. How closely did you collaborate?

NM: Nigel came up with that beautiful theme, simple and stunning, and in about three days he emailed me a first look; I couldn’t wait to get home and play it. There are certain things I suggested, like ‘let’s extend that beautiful arpeggio to make it more like a cadenza,’ and likewise I said if there’s anything he wanted to do but didn’t feel he knew how for left hand, ‘write it like you would for two hands and I’ll find a way.’ We were always in touch.

What is the ideal left-hand technique?

NM: If people say to me after concerts, “If you close your eyes you’d never be able to tell it was only one hand playing,’ that is an enormous compliment to me.  I feel I’m doing my job right if that’s the case.

Even then sometimes with the pedaling, it must be very difficult for two-handed pianists. With left-hand piano you have to use the pedal a lot more than you would usually. The pedal is almost like the right hand in a way, you have to see it as such a key part as opposed to almost a secondary part in two-handed playing.

You fell in love with the piano at the age of 14. Was taking lessons and becoming a serious pianist part of a desire to prove yourself?

NM: My mum and dad were from a very unmusical family, so when I was 14 I hadn’t listened to any classical music, which was nice because I discovered it all in one go like a kid in a sweet-shop.  I just got the piano bug, from that moment onwards I was just blown away. I just decided then and there not that I wanted to play the piano, but to be a concert pianist, and I didn’t even know that left-hand repertoire existed at that stage. I just wholeheartedly believed I would have a career as a performer even though every avenue you go through will tell you, “You know, only 3 per cent of conservatory musicians will ever make it as a performer.” You’re being told all the time to go into something else or to go into the business side… It didn’t bother me, it was like water off a duck’s back to me.

Two-handed musicians are being told that all the time! You faced a lot of setbacks; who supported you in achieving your dream?

NM: My parents just said ‘What can we do to help?’ I asked for piano lessons, and they paid for them; I wanted to go to the Junior Guildhall Saturday School and they paid for it, they just let me do the work. Then my teacher Nigel Clayton at the Royal College of Music is the one who understood me and the potential of my career.

Do you remember your first concert?

NM: It was in Oxford, it was at Christchurch Cathedral, and it was a very, very small fee, but it was such a beautiful place, and the piano was lovely. I knew this was definitely what I wanted to do; this was the job for me. I remember I was so, so nervous, for weeks before, but as soon as I walked out on stage all those nerves disappeared.

And to go from that to the Paralympics?

NM: That for me was one of those absolute amazing moments in life that probably won’t happen again. I sat in the middle of the stage with Coldplay to my left and an audience of 86,000. My parents couldn’t get tickets but they probably had a better view on the TV. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the camera on the big screen come up on me, so I was quite excited. And ten seconds later… twenty seconds later it was still on me, and I started to think, ‘Ok, you can take it off me now’!

Everyone was cheering so loudly because they could see what I was doing with one hand on the piano. It was really emotional, a special time for me. I’d only graduated two weeks before. It was one of those mad things, very intense, mental.

You recently recorded your album in Boston; what was the experience like?

NM: This is my debut commercial album so it’s very new to me, but this was a process I really, really loved.  It’s very different the approach to concerts. Of course as concert pianists we’re very detailed, but even more so in recording. It was really nice listening back to certain takes. You hear your worst and your best in one sitting, which is a fantastic opportunity to grow as a musician.

What would you like Solo to say to the world?

NM: I don’t want left-hand repertoire to be forgotten; I want to bring it to a mass audience. For this first album I wanted to give people a snapshot of what was available for left hand – beautiful Chopin-Godowsky  brand new pieces, arrangements and original solo works, so people can see: ‘Wow, that’s what’s possible with the left hand.’ If the one-armed guy from a small village out in the middle of Surrey can have a career in one of the most difficult industries, I think anything is possible with hard work and determination, it doesn’t just get offered to you on a plate.