Philharmonia / Dutoit / Lugansky, Royal Festival Hall, London <img src="http://www.independent.co.uk/template/ver/gfx/fourstar.gif" alt="fourstar"/>

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The Independent Culture

One of the beauties of concert pianism lies in difficulty overcome, and Beethoven's Hammerklavier sonata is a case in point. It opens with a low B flat, followed rapidly by a chord more than two octaves above: the "sensible" solution would be to divide the duties by playing the chord with the right hand, but no proper pianist would dream of doing such a thing. Partly because the left hand thus makes a visual flourish, and partly because you can actually hear that leap – the B flat left in a hurry, the chord landed on with equal haste.

In Ravel's Concerto in D for piano left hand, we can see this same principle at work. Its origin is poignant. The Wittgenstein most people know of – the philosopher Ludwig – had an elder brother Paul who was a pianist of world renown. Called up in the First World War, he was wounded in Poland and his right arm amputated, but he decided to continue his career with his left hand alone. His blind teacher wrote fresh pieces for him, but, as his new fame grew, major composers wrote for him, too, including Britten, Hindemith, Prokofiev, Richard Strauss and, most famously, Ravel.

It's a condensed and powerful work, whose preliminary subterranean growls suggest the war that gave rise to it; like Beethoven's sonata, it too requires the pianist to start with a leap. Ravel's stated intention was to "give the impression of a texture no thinner than that of a part written for two hands", and as the one hand covers the keyboard with arpeggios, and zips between bass and treble clefs, the untutored ear would indeed register two hands at work.

Doing the honours with the conductor Charles Dutoit and the Philharmonia Orchestra was the coltish Nikolai Lugansky, and what he created was enchanting: fire and thunder blended with the fugitive delicacy of Ondine. In his capable hand, the work proved much more than a technical stunt, and when the applause ended, he brought back his right hand for a pellucid account of Debussy's Arabesque.

The setting for Ravel's gem consisted of three early 20th-century French masterpieces, dispatched by Dutoit in high style: Debussy's Jeux and Images, followed by Ravel's crazy La valse.

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