performed by Martha Argerich, with the Berlin philharmonic under Claudio Abbado
(this link is of Argerich with her ex-husband, not the above recording with Abbado)
I really like Ravel. Quite a bit. We’ve talked about Gaspard before. It’s stunningly gorgeous.
I love his use of instruments and orchestration, even with just the piano, where you can hear his genius; this man knows his way around an orchestra. It’s similar to what I mentioned when talking about Prokofiev, and how he knows how to manipulate the ensemble and produce a desired, often unique effect. It’s spell-binding.
This piece is full of interesting effects and textures. And jazz, unfortunately.
I don’t much care for jazz, to be honest. Even though I was a saxophone player throughout grade school into high school, I never much cared for it… I was in jazz band in high school for a spell, by even that was more…. Swing type big band stuff, or more the jazz I could tolerate.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I don’t take jazz seriously, but… It is separate from classical music in my opinion…. In most situations. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue or something like it is an obvious exception, with the intention of bringing those influences into the picture and dancing around the idea of jazz, painting the picture of that scene and creating that landscape.
Anyway, Ravel was fascinated by jazz and its rhythms and harmonies, and this bears itself out here in his piano concerto, which he wrote concurrently with his piano concerto for the left hand, for Paul Wittgenstein, and it premiered a year later than the other work, in 1932. Marguerite Long was
the dedicatee and also premiered the piece. Ravel had encountered and been heavily influenced by jazz on a tour of America in 1928.
Ravel was fascinated by jazz, and said:
The G-major Concerto took two years of work, you know. The opening theme came to me on a train between Oxford and London. But the initial idea is nothing. The work of chiseling then began. We’ve gone past the days when the composer was thought of as being struck by inspiration, feverishly scribbling down his thoughts on a scrap of paper. Writing music is seventy-five percent an intellectual activity.
The work is scored for a normally sized orchestra, with the addition of some less common instruments like English horn, Eb clarinet as well as those in Bb and A, harp, and a plethora of interesting percussion like triangle, wood block, and a whip.
It’s a relatively small piece, lasting something around half an hour or less. It is in the typical three-movement form, with a slow middle movement.
The opening of the first movement sets the tone for the entire piece. It’s a whip crack and flute twittles. It’s a bit evanescence and tinkerish, but builds shape and gains momentum as the intro progresses, almost into something you could slap your knee to.
The second movement is an ethereal, dreamy thing of beauty, almost to a fault. Eating scallops and foie gras together may be decadently, over the top delicious, but it also lacks a certain something because it’s all the same texture. Crispy mush on crispy mush. I almost feel this way about the second movement, but just when you almost can’t take it anymore, the middle section (the movement is in ternary form) builds some tension through dissonance, enough to get out of the blissful, otherworldly landscape Ravel got us lost in for a while. Just as smoothly and suddenly as it appeared, it’s gone, and the blissful opening theme returns. Of that gorgeous opening passage, when Long praised Ravel for its beauty, he said “That flowing phrase! How I worked over it bar by bar! It nearly killed me!”
The last movement is the shortest of the bunch, and the most lively. It feels more like the beginning of the opening movement, but for a relentless four movements. It’s far more jazzy. I’m talking in harmonies, rhythms, the use of clarinet and trombone (I think), and percussion. The whole thing is flitty, kind of fun and Gershwin-y. There are still swells of orchestra here and there that kind of pick you up and take you away, but this is much more along the lines of a Rhapsody in Blue type piece that feels like you should be watching an animated reenactment or short story as it plays out. The whole thing is very light. There is tons of interesting texture here. I’ve stated before that I feel like that’s one of the things that Ravel does so well with the piano or orchestra is wring out and create and develop texture and effect; it’s just that I care less for those textures than in some of his other works.
This is one of the first pieces I’ve talked about that I don’t particularly really enjoy. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike it, per se, but it isn’t something I long to listen to or have a particular desire to hear. It’s apparently one of Argerich’s go-to pieces (along with Prokofiev’s third concerto). It holds a certain important place in the repertoire, as, after all, it is one of only two concertos by this composer, and despite its jazz influences, manages to stay identifiably Ravelian in nature. I adore many of his other works both for piano and the orchestra, and rather wish he could have written a concerto along the lines of the mysteriously rich and moving Gaspard or his Sonatine, but alas, he caught the jazz bug, and it infected both of his concertos, even the one with only one hand, although in my estimation not as much as this one.
There are parts of this I find fun, interesting, and in the case of the middle movement, even quite beautiful, but the piece as a whole is just that, fun and kind of interesting. I don’t mean to sound critical; from a compositional standpoint, it obviously comes from the mind of a genius, but it’s in a style that I don’t particularly enjoy, and I’m okay with that. Not every piece will be a favorite, or even one that I really like. I don’t mind this one, but it doesn’t blow me away. And that’s that.
The one thing I will say about this piece that I appreciated is the insight into Ravel’s compositional process. His two quotes earlier about struggling to write something are…. Well, rather encouraging. Rudolph Barshai stated in an interview before that his teacher Shostakovich was extremely strict about composing, and that he believed that if someone couldn’t compose in their heads first, and put it down in paper in something resembling a completed work, he wasn’t fit to be a composer. This seems rather challenging, unbelievable, even. Many people have the idea that art, in any form, is driven to some degree or other by the muses, and that inspiration is not a choice, but is given to the artist. Ravel’s comment here contradicts that abstract, magical idea, at least for him. Describing it as an intellectual activity tells me, at least, that it’s something that can be learned. One may not have an innate talent for it like some incontestably do, but to a great degree, is it not something that can be studied and comprehended? I would like to think so, and Ravel tends to agree, it seems. His comment about the second movement nearly killing him also bears this out. It’s nice to know that it’s not always magic, that there’s not a little inspiration fairy that frequents one person’s house and not another. I’ll address this another day, but I am learning that composition, like anything else, improves with practice. It seems more to be a tacit sort of knowledge, something you do eventually get a “feel” for with experience, not in a way is artistic and fleeting and evanescent, but in a way that transcends just memorizing the rules of counterpoint. So although I don’t really love this piece, I love the composer, and learned quite a bit from it.