Though he toyed with the idea of composing a piano concerto for many years, Ravel did not get around to it until his mid-50s. This was hardly due to ambivalence, as he had strong opinions on concerto composition. Ravel took a not-so-veiled dig at Brahms when he disparaged concertos that “were written not ‘for’ but ‘against’ the piano.” He would rather write a “genuine concerto” in the manner of Mozart and Saint-Saëns, one that would highlight the virtuosity of the soloist. Ravel did exactly this with his Piano Concerto in G Major, which unabashedly embraces flash and spectacle.
The first-movement Allegramente snaps to life with the crack of a whip. The piccolo jauntily whistles the first theme, as Basque as the composer himself. The English horn then takes us on a tour of Spain, the languid strumming of the piano imitating Spanish guitars. The third theme bears the unmistakable imprint of American jazz, heard by Ravel during his 1928 North American tour. A lively romp of a development leads to a cadenza, announcing the recapitulation that closes the movement. The following Adagio assai showcases Ravel at his most poetic, featuring a breathlessly long, endlessly beautiful melody of Bellinian length and Mozartian grace. As effortless as the melody sounds, it was a torment for Ravel to compose, who later complained of “that flowing phrase! How I worked over it bar by bar! It nearly killed me!” Stately sarabande rhythms in the right hand are offset by a slow waltz meter in the left, before the piano graciously passes the melody over to the oboe, clarinet and flute. The placid tranquility is disturbed by slowly ascending dissonant chord progressions, before it is restored by the English horn singing the opening melody accompanied by the piano. The lively Presto finale is hardly four minutes long, but punches above its diminutive weight. Having relinquished its role as soloist, the piano is now front-and-center throughout its energetic passagework. Clarinets shriek, trombones bray, and the brass section trumpets jazzy fanfares. A sharp crack in the percussion recalls the whip of the opening, and the movement ends abruptly with the dull thump of the bass drum.