Concerto pour piano et orchestre en sol majeur

The Piano Concerto in G major was a long time in the making. Ravel started thinking about it in 1928 (cf. his visit to Oxford) after his return from America; he took it up again in 1929, but then broke off to write the Concerto for the left hand, then continued with in 1930, and completed it in 1931.

Ravel saw this concerto as being in the spirit of Mozart and Saint-SaŽns, light and brilliant, and in contrast to those heavier classical concerti [e.g. Brahms] which he felt were written "against" rather than "for" the piano: "La musique d'un concerto, à mon avis, doit être légère et brillante et ne pas viser à la profondeur ou aux effets dramatiques". (Interview with M. D. Calvocoressi, Daily Telegraph, 11 July 1931, reproduced in French in Orenstein, [1989] p.363-365).

The concerto observes traditional 3-movement form, albeit with great contrasts of style between movements and indeed within them: the first movement begins with a whipcrack and goes on to include jazz elements reminiscent of Gershwin (whom Ravel had met in America in 1928), as well as an imitation of a musical saw in the trilling of the piano. Of the solo part, Marguerite Long later recalled: "It is a difficult work especially in respect of the second movement where one has no respite. I told Ravel one day how anxious I was, after all the fantasy and brilliant orchestration of the first part, to be able to maintain the cantabile of the melody of the piano alone during such a long slow flowing phrase... 'That flowing phrase!' Ravel cried. 'How I worked over it bar by bar! It nearly killed me!'" (Long, [1973] pp.39-45)

For a long time Ravel declared his intention to perform the work himself and to undertake a world tour with it. But in recognition of his diminishing health and his technical limitations as a pianist, he handed over the role of soloist to Marguerite Long, to whom the work is dedicated. Together they gave the first performance at the Salle Pleyel in Paris on 14 January 1932. On that occasion, Emile Vuillermoz was full of praise for the work, but critical of Ravel's conducting: "the accompaniment of the concerto lacked clarity and elasticity" (Christian Science Monitor, 13 Feb. 1932).

A recording of the work was made by Ravel with Marguerite Long in April 1932, just three months after the first performance, allowing a modern listener to form his own view of its initial impact. Indeed, even Vuillermoz had few doubts about this performance: l'enregistrement éblouissant du Concerto.... Ravel a exécuté ce tour de force avec un brio incomparable". There is however some doubt whether Ravel actually took the baton for the recording itself: although he was closely involved with the preparation and monitoring of the performance, he is reported to have left the actual conducting to the young Portuguese conductor Pedro de Freitas-Branco. (See Orenstein, [1989] p.411-412). Whatever the truth of this, it is a brilliant recording which as a performance remains unsurpassed.

Sergei Prokofiev heard the first performance and greeted it with qualified enthusiasm: "... a rousing reception on the part of both public and the critics was accorded here to Ravel's Piano Concerto. The acclaim had a slightly patriotic tinge ('our Ravel has created a truly classical concerto'), but in all justice it must be said that the concerto is a most interesting piece of music and is written with true brilliance. At the same time I would add that if this is a concerto the piano part is hardly likely to appeal to a concert performer; on the other hand, if it is simply a piece for piano with orchestra the two are so successfully combined that even the poverty of the pianoforte technique is likely to pass unnoticed." [In Muzikalny Almanakh (Moscow, 1932), trans. and repr. in S. Prokofiev, autobiography, articles, reminiscences, ed. by S. Shlifstein, (Moscow, 1956)].