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Piano Concerto in G major

About the Work

Maurice Ravel
Quick Look Composer: Maurice Ravel
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano Fri., Jan. 23, 2004, 8:00 PM
© Richard Freed
Ravel's two concertos for piano—this one in G and the one in D for the left hand alone—were composed in the years 1929-31 and, except for the song-cycle Don Quichotte à Dulcinée , which followed in 1932 (the by-product of a curious assignment for a film score offered to several composers at the same time and eventually awarded to Jacques Ibert), they were his last compositions in any form. The Concerto in G was begun first, but the Left-Hand Concerto was the first to be completed. At about the time he finished the two scores, Ravel spoke of them in an interview with a correspondent for the Daily Telegraph of London:

It was an interesting experience to conceive and realize the two concertos at the same time. The first [the G major], which I propose to play myself, is a concerto in the strict sense, written in the spirit of Mozart and Saint-Saëns. I believe that a concerto can be both gay and brilliant without necessarily being profound or aiming at dramatic effects. It has been said that the concertos of some great classical composers, far from being written for the piano, have been written against it. And I think this criticism is quite justified.

At the beginning, I meant to call [the G major] a "divertissement,” but afterwards I considered that this was unnecessary, as the name Concerto adequately describes the kind of music it contains. In some ways my Concerto is not unlike my Violin Sonata; it uses certain effects borrowed from jazz, but only in moderation.

According to M.D. Calvocoressi, the musical scholar and friend of Ravel, the G-major Concerto was "the belated materialization of a plan that ever since his youth Ravel had kept at the back of his mind. His intention was to play the solo part himself, and in 1931 he had an extensive tour all mapped out: it was to carry him as far as Japan.” The tour never took place. Ravel acknowledged that he was not a virtuoso in the league of Mozart and Saint-Saëns, and he gave the Concerto in G to Marguerite Long. She introduced it at the Salle Pleyel, with Ravel conducting, on January 13, 1932, just five days after Paul Wittgenstein gave the premiere of the Left-Hand Concerto in Vienna, and then recorded it with Ravel and performed it with him all over Europe.

In his authoritative little book on Ravel, Alexis Roland-Manuel (1891-1966), who was his pupil, friend and confidant for some 26 years, and whose judgments are candid as well as affectionate, expanded upon Ravel's own remarks on this work:

The Concerto in G major follows out the composer's intentions very closely. It is a virtuoso "divertissement,” brilliant, clear and light, with sharp contrasts which navigate with Mozartean ease the classic difficulties presented to free recapitulation by the formal sonata.

The initial Allegramente, with its astounding vigor, imposes a hard and energetic harmonic "climate” upon melodic lines which, in their delicacy and capacity for easy adjustment, are related not so much to the Sonata for Violin and Piano as to Ma Mère l'Oye and Ondine.

Some critics have professed to find the contrast of the Adagio assai and the two movements which bound it incongruous. In a work free of "cyclic” writing, it is as legitimate a contrast as the precisely similar example in the Larghetto of Mozart's Clarinet Quintet, which Ravel took as his model. The Adagio is really a Lied whose calm contemplation brings it unusually close to Fauré's musings. The composer confessed to Mme Long, when she praised the free development of the leisurely melody, which she felt came on naturally, that he had written it "two bars at a time, with frequent recourse to Mozart's Clarinet Quintet.” But, once again, the original had become absorbed into the pastiche and entirely disappeared.

The conclusion is heralded by a terse Presto , at once brilliant, brief and scintillating—a chase goaded by galloping fanfares and not to be halted by the nasal tattoo of jazz. It is a violent struggle between meter and rhythm—the apotheosis of tonality.

[ From Ravel, by Roland-Manuel, translated by Cynthia Jolly. Published in paperback by Dover Publications, Inc., through arrangement with Dobson Books, Ltd., London. ]