Maurice Ravel was 54 before he wrote any concertos, and then, in the fall of 1929, he set to work simultaneously on two. His Concerto for Piano Left Hand, dark and serious, was for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, and the other, the much lighter Piano Concerto in G major, was intended for the composer’s own use. But by the fall of 1931, when the G-major Concerto was complete, failing health prevented the composer from performing this music himself. Instead, he conducted the premiere in Paris on January 14, 1932; the pianist was Marguerite Long, to whom Ravel dedicated the concerto, and who had also given the first performance of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin in 1919.
Brilliant, transparent and sultry
Ravel described this work as “written in the spirit of Mozart and Saint-Saëns,” but listeners would hardly make those associations. What strikes audiences first are the concerto’s virtuoso writing for both piano and orchestra, the brilliance and transparency of the music, and the influence of American jazz. It is possible to make too much of the jazz influence, but Ravel had heard jazz during his tour of America in 1928 and found much to admire. When asked about its influence on this concerto, he said: “It includes some elements borrowed from jazz, but only in moderation.” Ravel was quite proud of this music and said that in it, he had expressed his thoughts just as he had wished.
Allegramente. The first movement opens with a whipcrack, and immediately the piccolo plays the jaunty opening tune, picked up in turn by solo trumpet before the piano makes its sultry solo entrance. Some of the concerto’s most brilliant music occurs in this movement, which is possessed of a sort of madcap energy, with great splashes of instrumental color, strident flutter-tonguing by the winds, string glissandos and a quasi-cadenza for the harp.
Adagio assai. In a three-minute solo that opens the Adagio assai, one of Ravel’s most beautiful slow movements, the pianist lays out at length the haunting main theme, which later returns to great effect with the English horn heard over delicate piano accompaniment. Despite its seemingly easy flow of melody, this movement gave Ravel a great deal of trouble, and he later said that he wrote it “two bars at a time.”
Presto. The finale explodes to life with a five-note riff that recurs throughout, functioning somewhat like the ritornello of a Baroque concerto. The jazz influence shows up here in the squealing clarinets, brass smears and racing piano passages. The movement comes to a sizzling conclusion on the phrase with which it began.
Instrumentation: solo piano with orchestra comprising flute, piccolo, oboe, English horn, clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, trumpet, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, slapstick, tamtam, triangle, wood block, harp and strings
Program note by Eric Bromberger.