By Ian Fleming
Many people will know composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) for one piece: ‘Bolero’, the orchestral work that accompanied figure skaters Torvill and Dean in the 1984 Winter Olympics. But as is the case with many composers, there is far more to the Ravel than his most famous piece.
In 1929, not long after Bolero was written, Ravel began writing both his concerto for left hand and his much-loved piano concerto (for both hands). Although I could easily write a blog about the other concerto, the story of his left-hand concerto is far more interesting.
The concerto for left hand was one of many commissioned by a pianist named Paul Wittgenstein – the older brother of the famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein – who lost his right arm in the First World War. Some of the other composers he commissioned were Britten, Prokofiev, Richard Strauss and Korngold, yet it is perhaps Ravel’s concerto that has become the most famous.
When I first learned of the concerto I regarded it as a gimmick, and argued that it could never be as pianistically interesting as a regular piano concerto. Ravel himself said that the difficulty of writing a concerto for the left hand is sustaining interest in an extended work with such limited means.
However, if listening unaware, you would be totally unable to tell that the pianist was using their left hand alone. The work is so technically difficult that I can only play some sections, and even then I have to cheat and use both hands. Wittgenstein claimed that this was even the case for Ravel himself, who played the solo part with both hands when he visited him. It was an awkward occasion, with Wittgenstein deciding that Ravel was not a very good pianist. Whatever the truth of this, it certainly highlights Ravel’s daring in writing such virtuosic piano music that he was unable to play.
Unlike most concertos, which are in multi-movement forms, Ravel’s contains just one movement, with a number of sections that differ in mood and pace. The whole work runs to about eighteen minutes.
The concerto starts as a rumbling of double basses playing open strings and slowly a gloomy melody begins to unfold on the contra-bassoon, an instrument rarely used for solos. It is a rather unusual beginning for a concerto – so slow and dark – but in time the orchestra builds to a climax of intense chromaticism. And then suddenly: silence, before the piano is heard for the first time.
Later in the piece, during a slower section, an incredibly beautiful and poignant melody emerges on the piano. The expressive atmosphere that Ravel creates in this passage is remarkably touching. Later on this same melody is reintroduced in a rather more virtuosic way, highlighting Ravel’s success in sustaining interest with such limited means.
The concerto was premièred on 5 January 1932 in Vienna, but not before Wittgenstein decided to make ‘improvements’ both to the orchestra and piano parts: much to Ravel’s discontent. Wittgenstein argued that ‘performers are not slaves’ and Ravel responded that ‘performers are slaves’ and spoke of infringement. The whole ordeal caused great resentment on Ravel’s part and the two never settled their differences. However, Wittgenstein later remarked that ‘it always took me time to appreciate a difficult work and only much later, after I’d studied the concerto for months, did I become fascinated by it and realize what a great work it was’.
It was not until March in 1937 that the concerto was performed as written, due to a contract Ravel signed giving Wittgenstein exclusive rights to it for six years. This was just nine months before the composer’s death. To make matters worse, pianist Alfred Cortot arranged a version of the piece for both hands. Ravel forbade publication and performance of this version, but this was ignored by Cortot.
Ravel’s concerto is one of the few pieces of music that truly astounds me both musically and physically. I am forever in awe of his piano writing and any pianist who attempts the piece. There is a recording of Wittgenstein performing the concerto on YouTube which demonstrates the extent to which he changed the score. As this recording is not Ravel’s intended version, I am linking another video that truly highlights the extraordinary piano writing, with soloist Hélène Tysman. Towards the end, Tysman’s finger begins to bleed. Despite this, she continues in what can only be described as a triumphant performance of an astonishing work.
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