Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand: Big, Bold, and Jazzy

In the fall of 1929, Maurice Ravel received a commission for a concerto from the Austrian pianist, Paul Wittgenstein. After losing his right arm in the First World War, Wittgenstein relaunched his career, performing left hand piano repertoire. He solicited works from numerous composers, including Paul Hindemith, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Sergei Prokofiev, and Richard Strauss. Wittgenstein proved to be a difficult client. After receiving Strauss’ thickly scored work, he wrote back, “How …

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Bolero: Ravel’s Sublime Orchestration Exercise

It’s one of the most iconic and sensuous pieces of twentieth century music, delivering the ultimate exploration of orchestral color. Yet, Maurice Ravel’s Boléro was conceived as a kind of composition exercise. The composer explained, It is an experiment in a very special and limited direction, and it should not be suspected of aiming at achieving anything different from, or anything more than, it actually does achieve. Before the first performance, I issued a warning …

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Ravel’s Piano Trio in A Minor: An Escape to a Better World

Maurice Ravel composed his Piano Trio in the spring and summer of 1914 as Europe descended into the First World War. Swept up in the fervor of the moment, Ravel rushed to complete the work in order to enlist, “working with the sureness and lucidity of a madman,” as he wrote to a friend. In a letter to Igor Stravinsky, Ravel wrote, “The idea that I should be leaving at once made …

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Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin” in Two Shades

We explored Maurice Ravel’s magical 1917 suite, Le Tombeau de Couperin, in a previous post. Composed in the aftermath of the First World War, it is music that retreats into the graceful motion and elegance of Baroque dances such as the Forlane, Menuet, and Rigaudon. It pays homage to the keyboard suites of the French Baroque composer, François Couperin (1668-1733), while serving, simultaneously, as a memorial for friends Ravel lost in the war. When listeners commented …

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Ravel’s Sonatine: Crystalline Classicism Made-to-Order

Musical Competition: Compose the first movement of a Pianoforte Sonate in F sharp minor, not to exceed 75 bars in length. A prize of 100 francs will be given for the winning composition. This advertisement, placed in the Weekly Critical Review in March of 1903, was the impetus for Maurice Ravel’s Sonatine for solo piano. Ravel entered the competition at the urging of his close friend, Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi, a contributor to the short-lived, Anglo-French cultural publication. In …

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Remembering Leon Fleisher: Three Legendary Recordings

Leon Fleisher, the eminent American pianist, passed away last Sunday in Baltimore following a battle with cancer. He was 92. Born in San Francisco, Fleisher made his Carnegie Hall debut at the age of 16 with Pierre Monteux and the New York Philharmonic. He performed Brahms’ First Piano Concerto, a work which would later become a signature part of his repertoire. At 23, he became the first American to win the Queen Elisabeth …

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Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli: Five Legendary Recordings

Last Sunday marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Italian pianist, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920-1995). Michelangeli has been called “one of the most enigmatic performers of the twentieth century.” A noted perfectionist, his concert repertoire was considered to be small, and he agreed to the release of relatively few recordings during his lifetime. He practiced eight to ten hours a day, telling students, “One has to work to feel your arms and back …

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