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

Hello everybody!

Following upon the previous post here’s the third and final part of this listening guide. We’ve got one short movement left, about 4 minutes of fast, fun music. This is the most straightforward movement of the three in terms of composition, which is counterbalanced by a brilliant and imaginative orchestration and such a dose of energy, virtuosity and overall excitement as to make the most ardent adherent of the ‘classical music is boring’ view to swallow their words.

So, here’s the movement, in Martha Argerich’s interpretation once again (she’s just unbeatable):

44:26 – We start with a series of four loud chords played by the brass (horns, trumpet and trombone) with a bit of help from the bassoons and the lower string, all above a trill on the snare drum – that’s what is responsible for that constant noise. Those chords are a declaration of intent: remember, we’ve just come out of the magical world of the second movement, and Ravel wants us to snap out of it, immediately. So we’re forcible told: no more melancholy, no soft colors, no starry nights, it’s all bright sunlight from now on, so come and join the fun (and as we’ll see, this section will become a recurrent motif throughout the movement). These chords are followed by a thump on the bass drum for good measure (at 44:29), and the piano is ushered in.

44:29-44:38 – well, folks, that’s what we get for a melody! There is a line there, actually, which one could sing (like, four times slower), but it’s so fast as to become just a fantastical swirl of notes which are hardly discernible to the listener. The pianist alternates the hands note after note, so that the line is evenly split between the two hands. More than that, the melody itself is just in the thumbs of each hand, while the outer fingers double it with various intervals. The resulting sound is vaguely oriental (say, at 44:34-44:36), and if you listen to this section a few times you’ll be able to feel the shape of the line – the places where it goes up, or down again, and then leads to the final short buildup and the cadence (44:36-44:38). The orchestra accompanies with pizzicati on the strings (you might remember, that’s the way of playing whereby the players pluck the strings), which add a bit of harmony and a rhythmic frame.

44:39-44:53 – the piano continues with more of the same, but now it’s just a backdrop to the utter funkiness that goes on in the orchestra. First the shrill E-flat clarinet (44:39) and later the piccolo (44:44) play something that sounds completely out of tune with what everybody else is playing – and it is! Even on its own their melody would sound eccentric and/or slightly crazy, but being played, as it is, in a different key, the effect is just doubled. I don’t know how to characterize the stuff they are playing – it’s not really jazzy and not really French, and not quite Klezmer-like – a mixture of everything and a bit more, to give an overall impression that somewhere, someone has gone bananas (in a jolly way).

The trombone gives a connecting pwwwam between the E-flat clarinet and the piccolo (44:42), and the piccolo is followed by a buildup made by the trombone, horn and trumpet (44:44-44:47), who together with the piano bring us to the climax of this section – which is a full repeat of the opening chords: brass, snare drum, bass drum and all (44:49-44:52).

44:54-45:06 – our bridge section melody (if we follow the sonata form structure), played first by the piano (44:54-44:58) and then bravely, but at first not really audibly plucked by the strings, while the piano is hammering away barrages of repeating notes (44:59-45:06). The melody itself is a pseudo-serious one, even with a small pretense to pompousness, which traits are belied by the springing syncopated accents strewn all over the place (but do note the two seconds of a more hesitant mood at 44:56 – probably the only [slight] touch of melancholy in this movement, and an invention of Martha :-), which I personally like quite a lot).

45:06-45:22 – a section based on the main theme of the movement. First, there is a dialogue between the woodwinds and the piano, both aided by plucks – the woodwinds by the harp, the piano by pizzicati in the strings. After two blocks of five bars (45:06-45:10 – piccolo+flute and piano, 45:10-45:14 – two different clarinets and piano), the piano takes over and continues the line on its own, gradually climbing up both in pitch and in volume. The horn adds its sound at 45:17, and jointly they reach yet another block of four chords, similar rhythmically to the opening ones (though offset by one beat triangle, and the thump on the bass drum is replaced by a crack of the whip (45:22).

45:22-45:34  – the orchestra is playing our second subject motif; once again, not a proper melody but rather a collection of military fanfares alternating between the horns and the trumpet, with the rest of the orchestra helping a bit (you’ll notice the snare drum at 45:24-45:25, adding to the military feel; also note how the bit at 45:27-45:30 has more of a French flavor). At 45:30 the horns’ sound gets a bit softer and is followed by a downward slide played by the trombone – a distinctly jazzy sound, which, like a strong spice, is able to change the mood instantly. It is followed by the same slide played twice as slowly (a device known as ‘augmentation’) by the clarinet (45:32-45:33). The piano then enters with upward arpeggios (45:33-45:34), bringing us back to the initial mood of the section.

45:35-45:50 – a repeat of the previous section with slight variations, and with the fanfares played now by the piano, accompanied by the other orchestral instruments in various combinations. The downward slide, once we get to 45:46, is played by repeated notes on the piano (once again with a dose of softer, dreamier harmony in the orchestra), and the section is once again ended by upward arpeggios on the piano (45:49-45:50), they, too, becoming softer this time.

41:50-46:09 – a two-part sequence, each part consisting of three smaller sections:

  • 41:51, 46:00 – quick downward runs in the piano, accompanied by steady, march-like beats in the orchestra. (As for those runs, let me introduce a new term here: they are chromatic. A chromatic scale is one that includes every single note on the piano – all of the whites and all of the blacks. As such it doesn’t have a key – you can start at any place and end at any place, and it will still sound the same [like what you hear at 45:51; for an upward chromatic scale, check out 48:00]. The word is derived from Chroma, meaning ‘color’ in Greek, as the chromatic notes were understood to add color to the normal, blander scale. Of course one could play chromatic scales on any instrument, it’s just easier to explain on the piano, as the twelve semi-tones of the scale correspond exactly to the twelve keys there are within each octave of the piano – here’s a picture of the keyboard for easier visualization, just count every key from any one ‘A’ to the one above it (don’t forget the blacks!):
  • 45:54, 46:03 – upward arpeggios on the piano, accompanied by the same beating pulse in the orchestra;
  • 45:57, 46:06 – an upward scale (not a chromatic one) in the strings, while the piano plays our recurrent motif of four chords + low thump, taken from the opening.

46:06-46:19 – the closing section of the exposition. My teacher once wrote a comment in one my scores: ‘Shostakovich-Mickey Mouse’. Well, if this isn’t ‘Ravel-Mickey Mouse’, I don’t know what is. 🙂 Very quick passage-work in the right hand, accompanied by ‘um-pah, um-pah’ in the left hand – a completely cartoonish place, especially if played at such a breakneck speed as Martha does. Structurally, we’ve got once again a two-part sequence (46:09, 46:12), followed by a chromatic buildup aided by the orchestra (inaudible in this recording, except for the trill on the cymbals at 46:16-46:17). At the end of this buildup there’s a loud and bright chord from the orchestra (46:18), and then everything plummets down, and we’re done with the exposition. (And we’re halfway through!)

46:19-47:05 – the development. Largely divided into two sections, each with a subdivision. The first section is 46:18-46:40. It begins with a low murmur in the celli (46:20-46:22), whereupon the bassoons enter and play the entire main ‘melody’ of the movement. I’m not a bassoon player, but somehow, listening to this passage, I get a feeling this is a hard place 🙂 (and do give a short listen to this – it’s even faster). Since we’re in the development, some combination or clash of various motifs is due, and we get it: at 46:26, the harp enters doubled by the celli, playing the motif from the bridge section; and at 46:30 we hear a quiet fanfare played by the horn – a short reminder of the second subject section.

The piano enters at 46:32, marking the second part of our first section (of the development) – the piano also plays the melody in full, accompanied by runs by the (poor?) bassoonists. The harp and celli once again add their counterpoint (46:35), and the horns with the fanfare (two of them this time) enter around 46:38.

46:41-47:05 – the second large section of the development. The piano will only play simple runs throughout this section, accompanying the orchestra, so we’ll leave it for now – the orchestra is where the interesting stuff happens. Structurally, there are five sections here, each a bit higher in pitch and volume than the one before, like steps one climbs in order to advance. The entry points are 46:41, 46:47, 46:53, 46:59, 47:02, with the last two being twice as short as the first three – as usual, getting impatient towards the end, which helps increase the tension and make the point of arrival (the recapitulation at 47:05) feel more satisfying.

From the motivic point of view, these five short sections bring together almost every bit of melodic material we had in the movement – the bridge section theme, the fanfares (two different motifs taken from there), and of course the main melody, running underneath it all (Mickey Mouse is absent – that one is a pure piano piece). It would be too cumbersome to list every single entry, and part of the fun is in their slightly chaotic juxtaposition, but here are a few to note: 46:43 – clarinet, bridge section, 46:45 – horns, second subject fanfare, 46:47 – trumpet, another bit from the second subject (the French flavor bit), 46:54 – same motif played by the shrill E-flat clarinet, 46:56 – harp and piccolo adding yet another layer of the bridge section motif, and it’s a free-for-all from there.

47:05 – hah, we’ve arrived. It’s the recapitulation, a repeat of almost all the sections we’ve had in the exposition, some of them in full, some in a shortened version, all of them with slight variations. The drive is almost incessant from here, with barely a moment of relief, so in some ways the entire recapitulation is a huge buildup towards the end of the movement (and the entire concerto with it).

47:05-47:17 – the main motif section, taken from the funky part (44:39). The motif itself is played by the strings, while the piano takes over the funkiness, once again in a totally unrelated key (though I feel this place is more effective in the exposition; the E-flat clarinet just seems to be the right instrument for the job). 47:13- – a chromatic climb in the piano (again, totally unrelated to what the orchestra is playing), leading towards

47:17-47:29 – the bridge section motif, played in broken chords by the piano and doubled by the woodwinds; quite a change of mood in comparison to the near-stateliness of 44:54! (I’ve got a sense of a quick clock ticking in the background here). There’s another climb at 47:26 (not a chromatic one), a cadence of three happy chords (47:28) and we get into

47:29-47:46 – the second subject section, played by the piano alternating with the trumpet (the snare drum keeping it company). All of the woodwinds join in at 47:35, and then suddenly there’s a respite from the relentless drive at 47:37 – it’s a variation on the jazzy downward slide bit we had at 45:30. A two-part sequence – a downward run on the piano followed by the chromatic downward slide played by the clarinet + some repeated notes on the piano (47:37-47:41); then once again a downward run on the piano, followed by a more energetic slide played by the trombone + more repeated notes on the piano (47:42-47:46). Then there’s a short upward run in the woodwinds (03:29), and we arrive at

47:47-47:57 – our Ravel-Mickey Mouse section. As quirky and cartoonish as it was in the exposition, and here it even gets an expanded ending, as the chromatic climb is twice as long (47:52-47:54, and then four bars more: 47:55-47:56). A trill on the cymbal once again accompanies the last stages of the climb.

47:57 – the orchestra play the beginning of the bridge section motif one last time, and then there’s a keyboard-spanning chromatic scale on the piano (48:00-48:05), doubled by the woodwinds: first the bassoons, then the clarinets and finally the flute and piccolo – everybody rushing up; a really effective place.

48:05 – a final buildup, starting with the piano on its own, but it’s soon joined by the woodwinds, and then by the rest of the orchestra – there’s a big crescendo (increase of volume), tension is rising, and, finally, at 48:11, the movement ends with one last, rejoicing repeat of the opening chords, the piano adding its lowest notes to the the final thump of the bass drum.

****

Well, that’s it! We’ve done it, quite a journey! Hope you’ve enjoyed, and I’ll see you at some point next month. Cheers for now. BG

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

  1. Ohhh!!! Boris! this part it was so nice! 🙂 I like the way you use to talk about the music 🙂 I’ve read every word and I really loved the phrase ” our Ravel-Mickey Mouse section” ahhah! You made me smile with that phrase! 🙂 thanks for that 😀 (I will remember it 😉 )

  2. Thanks for this analysis! Your “Mickey Mouse” section aligned with exactly where I expected it to be. (And I can think of a comparable Shostakovich Mickey Mouse in his first piano concerto.) Do you know what prompts some musicologists’ criticisms that this movement isn’t up to par with the rest of the concerto or most of Ravel’s oeuvre? Could it have anything to do with the clipped, unexpected coda?

    • I didn’t know about such criticisms at all! To me the concerto in general feels wonderfully balanced, I never felt the last movement needed to be any longer.
      It does stand out from Ravel’s other works in its almost complete lack of melancholy, and overall cheerfulness; but, hey, no one can be nostalgic or blue all the time.

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