Arts: Classical: Stunned by a majestic left

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IS IT a tragedy for a pianist to lose a hand? Not necessarily. Consider the case of Paul Wittgenstein, brother of the philosopher, who developed a brilliant career after losing his right arm in the First World War. Ravel, Korngold, and Prokofiev were just some of the composers who wrote left-hand concertos for him, thus defining single-hand pianism as an art in its own right. More recently, the British pianist Cyril Smith triumphed over his stroke-paralysed arm by becoming a celebrated three- hand double act with his pianist wife, Phyllis Sellick.

Leon Fleischer's recital at the current Sintra Festival was a fascinating reflection of the strength of this tradition. For when this American virtuoso's career was cut short by apparently incurable right-hand RSI, he devoted himself to broadening the left-hand repertoire; when his ailment eventually disappeared, he chose to continue on the left-hand path.

The left-hand works he played - by Takacs, Saxton, and Kirchner - showed what rich fruit now grows along that path; his own left-hand arrangement of Brahms's piano arrangement of Bach's second violin Partita was as majestic as the original. The whole excitement of Bach's contrapuntal fantasy lies in the requirement that it should be condensed to the scope of four strings and a bow; by condensing Brahms's piano expansion of it, Fleischer restored that original excitement, and his performance raised the roof.

And what a roof. The auditorium was the chandeliered, mirror-clad throne- room of the Palace of Queluz, Portugal's dainty answer to Versailles. The following night's concert, by the Polish pianist Piotr Anderzewski with the Philharmonie de Chambre de Paris, was accompanied by birdsong in a park at Estoril. And the entertainment for the night after that - a triple bill by the Pennsylvania Ballet - took place in the gardens of the Palacio de Seteais, a Napoleonic pile which has been perfectly preserved in its 1810 time-warp. No festival on earth can match this Portuguese hill-town's combination of palaces, convents, and wild architectural follies.

The artistic fare of Sintra's festival is challenging, and has a strong Russian tinge. This derives from the fact that when the Marquesa de Cadaval founded it 40 years ago, she defied the then-Fascist government's anti- Communist line to import a long succession of artists from beyond the Iron Curtain. The Marquesa, who died aged 97 two years ago, was a friend of Rubinstein and Stravinsky, and allowed Poulenc to stage an experimental version of Les dialogues des Carmelites in her villa. It was in this villa that Vladimir Ashkenazy - who still plays the festival - took refuge on his flight to the West. And it was in this villa that Barenboim and Du Pre had their honeymoon. Musically speaking, Sintra has a lot to answer for.

Two hundred years ago, Byron put Sintra on the tourist map. As its festival expands to take in a month of dance, its position on the cultural map now looks no less secure.

Performances by companies from Cuba, Italy, Spain, France, and Russia continue until 29 August. Information from 003511 923 11 57