A Frenchman in New York: a listening guide to Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G (part 2 of 3)

Hello! Following upon yesterday’s post, let’s continue with the second movement of Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G.

Remember I said (in secret) that the outer movements were not terribly difficult to play? Well, two things – I evaluated that saying today, and found I was in disagreement with myself, or rather that it was still too early for me to make that statement – one should really perform the piece in a concert at least once to be able to say such a thing truthfully. The second thing is, however we judge the difficulty of the first and third movement, the second movement is a first-rate pianistic and musical challenge. It’s easily the best known movement of the concerto, and possibly one of the best known musical works by Ravel – it’s easy to understand why, as the music is of such beauty, nobility and expressiveness – but it also requires a masterful hand (better two) to unlock its full potential.

The second movement might seem to be out of place in this concerto – there’s no trace of jazz here, no exotic motifs, not a shred of a connection, whether in melody or mood, between it and the outer movements – and yet I feel that the three movements not only complement but enhance each other, together creating a kind of a total, highly satisfying work (a bit like the second concerto by Shostakovich – which I will cover at some point – and there’s more resemblance between the two than we could suppose just by looking at the two names; but I’ll leave it for later).

So, without further ado, here it is (I chose a different version by Martha Argerich, which in my opinion is the best currently on YouTube):

The piano starts at 09:06 with two bars of accompaniment in the left hand, above which the melody appears at 09:11. We don’t suspect it yet but this simple left hand accompaniment – one-two-three, one-two-three, like a slow waltz – will stay with us for the entire movement, never changing its flow once – and that’s for above 9 minutes! I can’t think of any other movement or piece where the accompaniment does that (might be worth checking).

The melody, when it appears, is a single voice, one-note-at-a-time one, but before we discuss it further, you might notice something strange – it sounds as if it were played at a different time signature than the left hand. This requires more explanation – compare, for example with this: the melody is in total agreement with the bass line – every downbeat coincides, which is the way music is normally written. But something is awry with our waltz (hm, I’m not actually sure this is a waltz – far too slow – so please take this word with a grain of salt) – the first note of the right hand coincides with the ‘one’ of the ‘one-two-three’ in the left hand – everything fine till here – but then, the next note comes on the ‘three’, followed by three beats of silence – and then, when the right hand line starts moving again at 09:16, it’s one melody note per two accompaniment notes:

one  ——-   two  ———  three——-
one – two – three – one – two – three

… and the simple explanation for this is that the left hand is not playing ‘one-two-three-one-two-three’ as we were thinking but rather ‘one-two-three-four-five-six’, above which the right hand is playing the ‘one-two-three’ – Ravel plays a trick on us, leading us to believe that the opening is two bars in the left hand, whereas it’s actually just one – just a very slow one. But this lack of agreement between the two hands – the bar of the right hand is divided into three, the bar of the left hand into two (which are further divided into three each – but still, there are two groups per bar) – is one of the basic characteristics of this movement. It is a source of much harmonic tension (the left hand might change the harmony in the middle of the bar, on its second ‘one’, at which point the right hand still hasn’t moved from its ‘two’), but also a generator of flow – just imagine has static it would be in such a slow tempo if everything was just ‘one-two-three’ in both hands.

Hm, this is very technical stuff, so let’s emerge from it and return to the music. The only information you may want to retain from this is that each hand occupies its own world, with its own separate time flow; like two layers which sometimes coincide, sometimes not.

There is not much I can write till 11:57 – it’s all one melody in the right hand, and a single type of accompaniment in the left. And herein the great challenge lies – within this sparsity of material, constant interest must be generated by the pianist by squeezing every ounce of interpretative potential from both hands. And if squeezing sounds bad, well, yes, it should also be done in the most natural and inconspicous way – so that we don’t think ‘oh, man, when is it going to end already, why isn’t the orchestra playing?’ but instead lose ourselves in that slow flow.

This challenge is further compounded by the fact that the piano isn’t naturally suited to very slowly flowing melodies of this kind. There are large gaps in time between many of the notes, and what’s the pianist to do? A singer, a string player, a woodwind player – they would all have the ability to influence the sound after it was produced. You can check that easily – sing a single note; you’ll see right away that you are able make it louder, make it quieter, open you mouth, close your mouth, all without changing the pitch – there’s much you can do, and you could use all these devices if needed, to keep the listeners’ interest in such a melody. But on a piano, once a note is struck there’s absolutely nothing you can do – you can hold it or release it, that’s it. (You could also modify the volume of the left hand during the long notes in the right – if the left hand is quieter, those held notes in the right will be more audible. On the other hand, trying to do a vibrato on the key, like a string player would, is, well, just for show – once the hummer has struck the strings, there’s no physical connection between them till you release the key and strike it once again.) All of which makes the sound production skills of the performer all the more important – they must be able to draw out the colors and nuances of each note right away, not being able to rely on later changes while the note is sounding.

A few small points of interest:

  • generally throughout the section – notice how Martha’s two hands often do not play together; normally it’s a bad habit and to be avoided, but in this case it helps separate the melody from the accompaniment (free melody / constant and steady accompaniment), and also increase the number of audible notes (as two notes struck not-together will sound like two notes rather than one interval), perceptually generating more material.
  • 09:22 – a beautiful change of color and dynamics
  • 10:37 – the change to minor. Up to that point it was basically one very long musical sentence, albeit divided into smaller phrases. Those phrases are all of different and irregular length, the regular being 2+2 = 4 bars, 4+4 = 8, and 8+8 = 16. Here I’d say we had 4+3+3+4+3 = 17 (a prime!). Not something you would notice while listening, but I believe that this too helps deprive the music of a static, symmetrical feel, which would be ruinous in such a slow tempo. As it is, the melody just seems to flow naturally, uninterrupted, seemingly without end and without desiring to reach any specific point. Incredibly beautiful, but as I said, very challenging for the soloist, who needs to hold his or her musical breath for very long stretches, and do so effortlessly.
  • 10:58 – a sudden shift in dynamics, and the melody descends quite a bit – the chest voice of a singer, as it were. This is the beginning of the build-up towards the climax of our melody (a long way to go still, so don’t hold your breath)
  • 11:32 and here it is, the climax. Not much, really (though some pianists make more of a show out of it), but this is the highest note this melody reaches, and the loudest dynamic too. From here on it will subside. (Interestingly, the notion that the highest note should only appear once, at the climax of the melody, is a very old one, and goes back to the vocal writing of the 16th century, where it was very strictly observed – together with hundreds of other rules [studying it is a full academic course – 16th century counterpoint]).
  • 11:54 – it seems, seems as if we finally got to a cadence (the harmony is right, and the trill too) and the line will end. But Ravel has other plans in store – at 11:56 the orchestra comes in most beautifully, with a soft, warm chord in the strings and high above it – the flute. And then – a subtle change of harmony at 11:58, the violins play just a single half a tone lower (but it’s a tangible change – try to catch it, it’s a cool moment), and he has successfully evaded the cadence and continues with the line.

12:00-12:56 – the last section of the melody. The piano now only plays the accompaniment, the strings envelope it softly, and the melody passes to the woodwinds: first the flute, then at 12:09 the oboe, at 12:15 the clarinet, and from 12:31 the flute again (its entrance overlapping with the last notes of the clarinet). It soars up, descends, and then – finally – we get our cadence at 12:47-12:54. And what a beautiful one it is – for three reasons: a) it’s finally arrived, so simply because of a sense of deserved completion. b) the leading note – the penultimate note of the line, at 12:51, is half a tone lower than is should be, giving the ending a very special color and sound (the succinctly correct adjective is ‘modal’, but it’s a dangerous succinctness, as a discussion of modal music would take us into such technical depths as we may not emerge from, so I won’t use it) and c) – when the final chord finally arrives at 12:53 it’s a major key chord, and such a combination (minor key beforehand, lowered leading tone and a major key resolution) is a sure recipe for a sense of wonder, and Ravel uses it here masterly. It’s one of my favorite moments of the movement.

First section is over! Four minutes, one melody.

12:57 – the middle section begins. The melody returns to the piano, and it gains a bit more of a flow, aided by a syncopated left hand (if you think of our usual ‘one-two-three’ being ‘low-high-high’ in terms of pitch, now we have ‘low-high-high-low-low-high’) which is doubled by the bassoon for extra emphasis. It’s a two part sequence (12:57-13:14 and then the same phrase repeated a tone lower at 13:15-13:33 with a small variation towards end, at 13:28-13:32). You might notice that the piano is not alone – beside the bassoon who doubles the lowest line of the left hand, there is a counterpoint to the right hand melody – the cor anglais at 12:57 and another bassoon at 13:15

13:33-13:55 – a closing phrase in the piano, accompanied by the strings. At 13:35-13:40 there is yet another variation of the left hand – “low-high-high-low-high-low”, coinciding with the change of harmony and the shift into major, in which the phrase ends, and the section with it.

13:55:14:35 – a variation on the previous section (two part sequence + closing phrase). The two part sequence undergoes quite a change – we have figurations in the right hand, and creeping ascending chords in the orchestra – first bassoons and horns (13:55) then the rest of the woodwinds (14:00) and repeated (14:05 and 14:10 respectively). At 14:15 the closing phrase is repeated, and it’s more recognizable – the melody is played by the violins and it’s nearly the same, with just a change of rhythm in the first bar (the piano at 13:33 had four and a half bars for the phrase, the violin at 14:15 have just four, so the first bar gets condensed – it’s not terribly important, but you can probably hear it if you compare the two places directly). And once again we end in a major key.

14:36 – the beginning of a build-up towards the climax of the movement. Ravel uses the right hand figurations from 13:55 as well as the ascending chords in the orchestra and builds sequences upon sequences of those, each time a bit higher in pitch and in volume. The length of the figuration groups gradually shortens – first it’s two groups of three beats (14:37 and 14:41), then two groups of two beats (14:46 and 14:49) and then, from 14:53 it’s just one-beat long groups – quite a common device for increasing tension and transmitting a feeling of impatience. This also clashes with the left hand rhythm which steadily continues with its ‘one-two-three’ – but we’re used to those clashes by now 🙂

15:00 – nearly there, the piano plays very quick figurations, with an extra note between each of one the previous six (so 12-note groups; you can see them at 15:01 – well, a blur of fingers, basically; but it’s not a difficult place at all, just effectively written) – and 15:04 is the big chord, with the entire orchestra joining in for a few moments. It all quickly subsides though, and the piano at 15:10-15:15 leads us back to calm waters.

15:15-17:27 – the recapitulation. The full melody is now played by the cor anglais (English horn) – remember it from yesterday? ‘haunting and beautiful’ I said, and I stand by these words. I really love its sound (the next entry of the Youtube Person’s Guide to the Orchestra will cover it and the Oboe d’amore). The right hand of the piano plays a beautiful counterpoint, loosely based upon the figurations from the middle section, but with many variations and scales woven in. The strings add warmth, and the left hand of the piano continues its inexhaustible beat. The right hand at times becomes nearly melodic (15:27, 15:37, 15:50, 16:45, 16:54, 17:05) and at other times is just a shimmering companion to the main melody – it’s all utterly beautiful (I keep repeating that, I know, but I mean, it is, isn’t it?). And then at 17:20 appears the trill which signified that fake cadence at 11:54, but this time it’s not a fake – the piano rises up and up and then, with a big sigh of satisfaction we are there –

17:27 – the most magical moment of all, for me. This resolution into the major key, the right hand playing in the stratosphere together with a quiet chord from muted brass (horns and trumpet) is that sudden shaft of moonlight I spoke about yesterday. The right hand descends slowly, while in the orchestra the flute enters at 17:33 (what a difference in sound in comparison with the cor anglais! It’s all lightness and air) and soars up. It then descends, passing the melody to the oboe at 17:47 and back to the cor anglais at 17:50, which together with the piano slowly brings the phrase to a close.

18:04 – the ending. The trill is now in the right hand (you know what the left hand is playing, I don’t need to tell you), while the strings play slowly moving chords (note the extraneous note at 18:12 – extraneous to the harmony; just an extra bit of color – followed by a tiny bit of counterpoint in the left hand [till 18:20]). In the penultimate bar (18:29) the left hand finally slows its beat and play just one long ‘one  –   two  –  three’, followed by a last ‘one’.

That’s it :-). Hope you enjoyed it (if yes, spread the word!). Third movement to follow later this week – see you soon.


8 thoughts on “A Frenchman in New York: a listening guide to Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G (part 2 of 3)

  1. Pingback: Piansts per | Snigofoto

  2. Pingback: A Frenchman in New York: a listening guide to Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G (part 3 of 3) | Classical music for all

  3. Dear Boris,

    I feel compelled to write this reply because I saw myself so much in your analysis of this piece (which I think is the most beautiful piece of music I ever heard, gives me chills every time, especially 12:00 – 12:47 and 17:27).

    Too bad the video of Argerich’s recording is of poor quality, too much whooshing sound.

    Keep up the good work !

    I will now explore your blog, revisiting some stuff I already know, and hopefully discovering a lot more !


  4. Hello, Boris!
    I have to tell you, I really enjoyed this analysis! Thanks for mentioning all the special moments in this work – I particularly love the change of color in the piano’s trill at 12:04. Argerich’s interpretation is priceless!
    ~ Maggie

  5. Nice analysis! Congratulations.
    What I find mesmerizing is how the dissonance found at 13:55 till 14:15 on the piano part didn’t sound beautiful at all the very first time I heard the piece — it just sounded weird. But as powerful as it is, Ravel’s knew how to reward the audience by wrapping it up with a full, comforting consonance in the end. His genius lies in his ability to play with suspense just to an appropriate degree.

    • I think weird and uncomfortable is exactly how it was meant to be perceived 🙂
      Do you find the ending comforting, though? I always felt it was a bit of an empty, ironic gesture, like a pretense of ‘business-as-usual’, when actually the world lay in ruins about them.

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