About this Recording
8.573572 - RAVEL, M.: Orchestral Works, Vol. 6 - Piano Concertos / Tzigane (Dumont, J. Gilbert, Lyon National Orchestra, Slatkin)
English  French 

Maurice Ravel (1875–1937)
Orchestral Works • 6


From his father, a Swiss engineer, Ravel inherited a delight in precision and incidentally in mechanical toys, while from his Basque mother he acquired a familiarity with something of Spanish culture. Born in the village of Ciboure in the Basque region of France in 1875, he spent his childhood and adolescence in Paris, starting piano lessons at the age of seven and from the age of fourteen studying piano in the preparatory piano class of the Conservatoire. He left the Conservatoire in 1895, after failing to win the necessary prizes, but resumed studies there three years later under Gabriel Fauré. His repeated failure to win the Prix de Rome, even when well established as a composer, and his disqualification in his fifth attempt in 1905, resulted in a scandal that led to changes in that august institution, of which Fauré then became director.

Ravel’s career continued successfully in the years before 1914 with a series of works of originality, including important additions to the piano repertoire, to the repertoire of French song and, with commissions from Diaghilev, to ballet. During the war he enlisted in 1915 as a driver and the war years left relatively little time and will for composition, particularly with the death of his mother in 1917. By 1920, however, he had begun to recover his spirits and resumed work, with a series of compositions, including an orchestration of La valse, rejected by Diaghilev, causing a rupture in their relations, and a number of engagements as a pianist and conductor in concerts of his own works at home and abroad. All this was brought to an end by his protracted final illness, attributed to a taxi accident in 1932, which led to his eventual death in 1937.

The two piano concertos of Ravel, the second, for left hand, commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein, brother of the philosopher, who had lost his right arm in the war, were written between 1929 and 1931. The G major Concerto, at first conceived as a Basque rhapsody, was dedicated to Marguerite Long, who was the soloist in the first performance at the Salle Pleyel in Paris on 14 January 1933. Originally conceived as a Divertissement for Ravel’s own concert use, it is relatively lightly scored, although the percussion section includes triangle, drum, cymbals, side drum, gong, wood block and whip. Ravel claimed to have taken the slow movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet as a model for his Adagio, and for the composition of the whole work, which took him some time, made a close study of scores of concertos by Mozart and Saint-Saëns. The jazz element of the first movement, with suggestions of Gershwin, yet fully absorbed into Ravel’s own idiom, leads to the beautiful and nostalgic piano solo that starts the second movement. The motor rhythms of the last movement and the lively syncopations complete a concerto of elegance, brilliance and wit.

Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D major is a remarkable tour de force, providing the one hand with as much to do as two hands. The slow first section is followed by a piano passage in the nature of an improvisation, introducing a jazz element, in fact derived from the opening. Scoring is for a larger orchestra than the two-handed concerto, with three trumpets, three trombones and tuba, where the other has only one trumpet and one trombone. The complement of percussion is similar. There is an ominous melody heard at the start, played in the depths of the woodwind section, with an accompanying repeated figure in the double basses. This slow introduction swells in volume, leading to the appearance of the piano, the solo passage ending with a fine flourish that ushers in the orchestra once more. When the piano returns, it is with material that shows more clearly the influence of jazz, although transformed by the idiosyncratic musical language of Ravel. The concerto was given its first performance in Vienna on 27 November 1931.

Ravel’s Tzigane, a gypsy piece to end all such pieces, was written in 1924 for the Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Arányi, whose own improvised additions the composer added to the completed work, remarking, it is reported, that he did not know what she was doing, but he liked it. The work was described by one of Ravel’s friends as a violinist’s minefield, and it is certainly designed to test the virtuosity and technique of any player who tackles it. The Tzigane opens in true gypsy fashion, with an unaccompanied violin introduction, making full use of gypsy melodic formulae. This is followed by music that, while more characteristic of Ravel in its harmonies, continues to use the repeated turns of phrase that give the work its character.

Keith Anderson

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