Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn, E-flat clarinet, clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, trumpet, trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, slapstick, tam-tam, triangle, and wood block), harp, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 6, 1933, Artur Rodzinski conducting, with pianist Gunnar Johansen
It was Ravel’s original plan to write a concerto for his own use. In his public appearances as a concert pianist he had preferred to play easier pieces like the Sonatine and was all too conscious that his technique was not up to his most demanding works, such as Gaspard de la nuit. But rather than write a piece within his own capacity, he decided to write a concerto of proper difficulty and simply acquire the technique to play it. Thus his composition hours, already long and arduous compared with his earlier facility (by the end of the 1920s he was aware of the failing brain activity that cruelly silenced his last years), were interspersed with hours devoted to the etudes of Czerny and Chopin in an unavailing attempt, at the age of 55, to perfect his digital skills. It was not until the work was finished, late in 1931, with a premiere not many weeks away, that Ravel abandoned his aspirations and turned to Marguerite Long to give the first performance instead. This she did on January 14, 1932, in the Salle Pleyel, Paris, with Ravel conducting.
Gustave Samazeuilh recounted that in 1911 he and Ravel spent a holiday in the Basque region (where both of them had come from) and that Ravel sketched a “Basque Concerto” for piano and orchestra. Without the right idea for a central linking movement the work was abandoned, to reappear 20 years later as the G-major Concerto. This at least suggests a Basque origin for some of the themes, although it is easier, without any general familiarity with Basque music, to recognize that the livelier themes emerge from Ravel’s preoccupation with the brilliant percussive qualities of the piano itself and that the languorous melodies betray his gift for giving a peculiarly sophisticated edge to the language of jazz. It is striking that the sound of this Concerto differs markedly from that of its brother, the Concerto for Left Hand, composed at the same time, not just in having ten fingers at work instead of five: he concentrates their activity in the upper reaches of the keyboard and also employs a small orchestra, more an ensemble of soloists than a grand tutti. Ravel asserted that he composed this Concerto in the spirit of Mozart and Saint-Saëns, two composers of impeccably classical pedigree.
The three movements are accordingly laid out on the classical plan, with two quick movements embracing a slow one. The first movement in its turn offers both quick and slow sections, the latter being the occasion for some virtuoso melodic flights for solo instruments, notably the bassoon in the first half, the harp and the horn in the second, while the piano is often required to be sweet in one hand and pungent in the other at the same time. Gershwin’s flattened scale is much in evidence.
Ravel spoke of writing the slow movement “one bar at a time,” which is nothing if not cryptic, and also referred to Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, which is scarcely more helpful, except that of course the idea of melody-with-accompaniment is prominent in both. The style is pure, both in the simplicity of the piano style and the absence of chromatics, but it also has a constant suggestion of wrong notes in the manner of Satie, the wrongness in Ravel’s case being supremely calculated and right. Simplicity gives way to complexity and the melody returns on the English horn as the piano’s exquisite tracery continues to the end.
The last movement is an unstoppable cascade, with the orchestra again tested to the limit, not just the soloist. The movement is neatly framed: its opening clustered discords return as a signing-off at the end.
Hugh Macdonald is general editor of The New Berlioz Edition and a professor of music at Washington University in St. Louis.