With the slap of a whip, Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major springs to life. Suddenly, a magically intricate machine is propelled into motion. With the solo piano in its twinkling highest register, a toy soldier march in the piccolo, delicate string pizzicati and harmonics, and the almost imperceptible whir of the snare drum, we are whisked into an enchanting world of innocence and imagination. In these glistening opening bars, we are reminded of Stravinsky’s characterization of Ravel as “the most perfect of Swiss watchmakers.”
Ravel conceived this music in the spirit of Mozart and Saint- Saëns and called it “a concerto in the truest sense of the word.” He continued,
The music of a concerto should, in my opinion, be lighthearted and brilliant, and not aim at profundity or at dramatic effects. It has been said of certain classics that their concertos were written not “for” but “against” the piano. I heartily agree. I had intended to title this concerto “Divertissement.” Then it occurred to me that there was no need to do so because the title “Concerto” should be sufficiently clear.
If the initial theme of the first movement (Allegramente) suggests the folk music of the Basque region where Ravel was born, the following themes take a sultry turn towards the blues. The influence of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and Piano Concerto in F Major (1925) is apparent. Ravel began writing the G major Concerto in 1929, following his four-month-long, 20-city tour of North America. While in New York, “Ravel spent several nights with Gershwin, listening to jazz at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, where dancers did the Lindy Hop to hot jazz from some of the nation’s greatest bands,” and “visited Connie’s Inn and the nearby Cotton Club, where he heard Duke Ellington and his orchestra.” (Louise Burton).
The first movement opens the door to an array of jazzy, conversing instrumental voices, which include the clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, and trombone. It inhabits a world of vivid, sensuous colors. Briefly, the solo horn engages in polytonal wanderings. In one passage, the harp paints a mysterious, exotic, dreamscape. A moment later, with rapid trills, the solo piano achieves the seemingly impossible effect of a shimmering vibrato.
The second movement (Adagio assai) inhabits a far-removed world which is at once dreamy, serene, and lamenting. It begins with the solo piano, alone. An endlessly expansive melody evokes the numb timelessness of Satie’s Gymnopédies. It is a hypnotic waltz which blends the meters of 3/4 and 3/8 time. Ravel claimed to have labored “one bar at a time” over this sublimely simple music. As this intimate statement unfolds, for a moment we might forget that we are hearing a piano concerto. Then, the orchestra enters, and the music is bathed in a new dimension of color. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the tension rises. A moment of haunting dissonance dissolves into a duet between the piano and English horn. While this new pastoral voice takes up the long melody, the piano accompanies with floating, ephemeral embellishing lines. Just when we think the melody will finally find its resolution, a deceptive cadence opens a magical new door (8:13).
The conductor Edward Downes said that the brief final movement (Presto) “flies at such supersonic speed that it seems to finish before it has started.” The French flutist and composer Louis Fleury described this thrillingly wild moto perpetuo as “an unstoppable onslaught, spurred on by the shrieks of the clarinet and the piccolo, the donkey brays of the trombone and occasional fanfare flourishes in the brass.”
II. Adagio assai:
Five Great Recordings
- Ravel: Piano Concerto in G Major, M. 83, Krystian Zimerman, Pierre Boulez, Cleveland Orchestra Amazon
- Martha Argerich with Yuri Temirkanov and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
- Hélène Grimaud with Vladimir Jurowski and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe
- Jean-Philippe Collard with Lorin Maazel and the Orchestre National De France
- Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli with Ettore Gracis and the Philharmonia Orchestra
Featured Image: “Basque Landscape” (1914), Leon Kroll