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15. Ravel – Piano Concerto in G, I. Allegramente

August 8, 2011

Watch and listen on Youtube: Ravel – Piano Concerto in G, I. Allegramente

Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G is one of two that he completed at about 1930, the other being a Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, written for a famous pianist of the day who lost his right arm fighting in World War I. Written relatively late in his life, it's a dazzling work that really shows Ravel at his best in creating with exotic colors and textures, often being very visually evocative, and also working with larger-scale structure and “architecture.” There’s a remarkably wide range of influences in the concerto, including classical era ideals, contemporary French influences, folk music, and perhaps most notably, American Jazz. The concerto is a pretty difficult piano piece, filled with fiery and exciting virtuoso-type work, but it also contains some remarkably delicate and beautiful moments that rival those of even the very best melodists of all classical music.

Before an in-depth chronological analysis of the first movement, some broader patterns and ideas on what to listen for in this piece:

Lots of ideas and thematic material. The very opening of the movement moves very quickly from one idea to the next – Ravel introduces a ton of stuff just within the 1st minute. However, after a few minutes, it settles down some, and you’ll notice that Ravel will spend longer amounts of time on one idea.

Frequent changes in tempo or pace. Listen for different instruments interrupting eachother – sometimes juxtaposing a different pace on top of what another instrument is doing, sometimes taking over and dictating a new pace altogether.

Huge variety of colors. Listen for lots of solo wind and brass instruments, and instruments sometimes being used as “sound effects.” Often, an instrument will come in only for a quick few notes – just adding a splash of color to a more forefront idea. Listen for exposed usage of percussion instruments (as opposed to rhythmically supportive percussion, perhaps).

Many different “characters” in the orchestra. In classical era concertos (such as those of Mozart), the orchestra largely functions as one “character” interacting with the solo piano, but in Ravel’s orchestra, it seems more that instruments of the orchestras are each more like individuals, and the piano is joining a very busy group conversation.


Now, for chronological hilights:

0:26 – It begins with a snap of a whip, which is a percussion instrument made of 2 flat pieces of wood, which are slapped against each other. The ensuing motif is played by flutes, piano, and snare drum. It’s a very odd combination of instruments, but listen to the haze effect that it creates.

0:50Trumpet melody, and a bunch of instruments creating a noisy percussive effect. Can’t name them all, but there’s trombone in there with the repeated “dirty” sliding sound.

1:26 – New idea and new pace. A clarinet introduces the “jazz” motif. Jazz had started appearing in Paris cafes, and Ravel was quick to experiment with the new sounds of it. There’s a lot going on in this opening section, but Ravel will cycle back to all of it later on. Of the spectrum of “spontaneous” to “deliberate,” Ravel’s process and perspective on composing is absolutely deliberate. The great Russian composer Igor Stravinsky called Ravel “The finest of Swiss watchmakers,” in regards to the perfectionistic precision and craftsmanship that Ravel put into his music.

2:06 – I’ll call this the “rising” melody, which in technical terms, is built upon a pentatonic scale. Ravel was big on experimenting with all sorts of scales and modes (hard to really explain this well in only few words). Listen to the response to the “rising” melody, this kind of this creepy, dissonant sound, created by a bunch of instruments, which doesn’t seem to “agree” with the rising melody. Makes for an interesting juxtaposition.

3:02 – The piano runs off at a new pace. Listen at 3:20 for the “jazz” motif played in a rapid descending sequence by the piano.

4:09 – After a wild ascending piano mini-cadenza and another exposed bass drum hit, back to a legitimate recapitulation, quite true to the classical sonata form idea of a recapitulation. Ravel held Mozart in very high regard – not necessarily apparent when you look on the surface and all of its dazzle and modern musical vocabulary, but Ravel’s large-scale structure, and how he organized ideas, are actually very classical. In this section, we hear a lot of the same ideas from the start of the movement, but mostly played by different instruments than before.

4:56 – Suddenly, everything seems to come to a halt, and a harp floats in playing a very “mystical” texture.

5:16 – Suddenly again, a bass drum strike, and a flute plays the “jazz” motif with a crazy “fluttering” effect (of which I don’t know the proper term), then likewise echoed by a trumpet. Underneath, the strings are doing these crazy sliding harmonic noises. Sorry, again, very hard to describe this in a few words.

6:09 – The piano plays the “rising melody” alone, doing a “three hands” effect – the right hand is holding a trill, while the left hand is playing both melody and accompaniment to itself.

7:09 – Add strings to the “rising melody” – beautiful textural work here between the strings and piano.

7:30 – At the peak of the melody, it sounds like something cracks, and dissipates into a million pieces of crystal-ly dust, and cascades down gently into still water… ok, I have no idea, but something like that.

7:37 – New idea – starting with the lowest note on the piano, a new hard-driving pace lead by the piano. At 8:09 is something that’s undoubtedly a jazz idiom. Hard to describe more than what you just hear out of it.

8:20 – Almost at the end of the movement, with the help of the bass drum, it sounds like a huge wave is building. Listen to all the added colors at the ending, including french horns playing in high register in chords. Power ending.

Next: 2nd movement of the same concerto.

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