Piano Concerto in G Major

Caroline Rae

When Ravel began planning the G major Piano Concerto in 1928 he was at the peak of his career, fêted internationally with his music the focus of numerous festivals and celebrations, these including an Honorary doctorate from Oxford University. Ravel decided he wanted to write a concerto for himself to perform in a projected world concert tour, and in 1929 set about the task in earnest only to be interrupted by a commission from Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein for the Concerto for Left Hand. Ravel worked furiously over the next two years composing both concertos simultaneously while also fulfilling conducting and recording commitments. The G major Concerto was eventually completed in 1931, but due to Ravel’s already delicate health the solo part was entrusted to the work’s dedicatee Marguerite Long who gave the première, with Ravel conducting, at the Salle Pleyel on 14 January 1932. The Concerto for Left Hand was premièred in Vienna on 5 January the same year. Ravel’s plans for a world tour with the G major Concerto never came to fruition, although he conducted several European performances with Marguerite Long – the last in November 1933 – before his health caused him to withdraw from the concert platform entirely.

The G major Concerto was an instant success. The critic Emile Vuillermoz, one of Ravel’s associates from Les Apaches, praised the composer for his ‘profound invention’ and ‘freshness of inspiration’, and declared the concerto to be ‘the finest artistic manifestation of the season’. Among Ravel’s last completed works, the concerto synthesises many of his most characteristic features: his love of sumptuous orchestral sonorities, jazz, Spanish music, and 18th-century elegance.

Conceiving the work as a divertissement, Ravel framed his concerto according to a traditional fast-slow-fast classical plan in which the opening Allegramente outlines a sonata form, the second movement presents a reflective interlude, while the explosive finale boils with exuberant virtuosity. According to Ravel’s maxim ‘complex but not complicated’, the work bristles with new colouristic textures as much for the orchestra as pianist, the two being combined in equal partnership. The first movement’s energetic opening theme, which reputedly came to Ravel on the train from Oxford to Paddington, is assigned successively to piccolo, trumpet and strings, the piano accompanying with toccata-like figurations before being interrupted by a brooding, bluesy Spanish-inspired theme – the piano’s first solo. This extends into a jazzy section that gradually introduces a more romantic melody redolent of Rachmaninov. These two slow sections represent the expressive heart of the movement and are the focus for a host of innovative timbral effects, tinged with bitonal colouring, in both the orchestra and piano. The Adagio opens with an extended lyrical melody on the solo piano that, according to Ravel, was inspired by the Larghetto of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet. Deceptive in its simplicity, this nostalgic theme is taken up by the woodwind, the piano gradually withdrawing to an accompanimental role. Reveries are broken by the dramatic energy of the Presto finale with its percussive rhythms, trumpet fanfares, jazzy clarinet squeals and rapid toccata figurations in the piano – a catalogue of virtuosity for soloist and orchestra.

Further Reading