Ravel – Piano Concerto in G

by Max Derrickson

(Joseph) Maurice Ravel     (b Cibourne, Basses-Pyrénées, March 7, 1875; dParis, December 28, 1937)

Piano Concerto in G
1. Allegramente
2. Adagio assai
3. Presto

Maurice Ravel is considered one of France’s foremost Impressionist composers, but classifications can be slippery.  His distinctive Piano Concerto in G, completed in 1931, for instance, defies this classification as much as it reflects Ravel’s many interests and marvelous uniqueness as a composer.  From his Swiss engineer father, young Ravel gained an undying fascination with machines and in the late 1920’s (by then a mature composer), he had even imagined the possibility of composing a work played entirely by factory machines.  In later years he spent many hours making fantastic little mechanical toys for his two “honorary” godchildren.  An even stronger influence was born of his Basque mother, who fostered in Ravel a lifelong love of Spanish music. We know, of course, of his Bolero, but there are many other Spanish informed works by Ravel (for example, Rhapsodie Espagnol).  He was equally enamored with old music as well as the new.
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The splendid and unusual opening to this Concerto reminds us of Ravel’s godchildren’s fantastic little toys.  A slapstick cracks, opening the scene of what might be a room filled with bizarre little mechanical creatures marching about, rhythmically busy in their curious quests.  The piano is in the fray right from the start, trilling and roiling up the little mechanical atoms.  All is a fantastical world of whimsical wonder and childhood-monster grotesqueness.  But soon the mechanisms wind down, and the piano lushly spins a bluesy, Spanish-tinted tune which dances sensually, but completely aloof  from the scene just passed.  Early sketches of a previous work by Ravel, a Basque rhapsody called Zaspiak bat, are generally thought to appear in the first and last movements of this concerto, and its Spanish flavor is certainly noticeable in this movement.
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Among the joys contained here is, after an understated little rhapsody from the piano, the music sinks into a pseudo-cadenza from the harp which appears from yet another magical universe, of fairies and fluffy comets and pink-green skies, until an interruption by some very annoyed mechanistic creatures wins back the moment with loud grumbles and a little day dreaming of their own.
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Ravel had strong opinions about the nature of concertos, famously accusing Brahms of writing concertos against the piano, their gravity so insistent. For his concerto, Ravel had toyed with calling it a divertissement, which more than a century ago referred to the music that filled the gaps between set changes in operas, intended to please and delight, but not overwhelm, the audience.  This notion might help to explain the seeming incongruity between the three movements. Where the first is full of frenzy, fancy and curiosities, the second is full of incredible beauty and utter sincerity.  The piano begins alone, quietly tapping out an unadorned accompaniment to an unhurried waltz.  The melody, stunningly simple and moving, emerges timidly at first, as if the first steps of a lone dancer in deep reverie, and then it wanders sweetly and gently.  The dance moves through increasingly richer variations, eventually enveloped by gorgeous strings and winds, but it completely avoids complexity and pretentiousness.   The reverie then shyly fades with the piano trilling delicately and the strings breathing out with absolute contentment.  As seamless and naturally flowing as this incredible movement is, it’s fascinating to know that Ravel struggled more with this movement than any other of his career, bringing him close to despair.  So much so that he admitted to the concerto’s dedicatee, Marguerite Long, that he composed it two, sometimes one, measure at a time.

Completely changing scenes again, the third movement  . . .
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