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Maurice Ravel (1875 - 1937) – Concerto for Piano (Left Hand) and Orchestra

If he was struggling with one piano concerto, how come writing another vanquished Ravel’s “writer’s block”? Well, let’s start with the Great War. Ravel did his bit, driving ambulance-loads of shattered men. He believed his world was doomed. In some ways it was, judging by his music - for example, the original Tombeau de Couperin’s movements were touchingly dedicated to wounded soldiers he had known. In 1930, along came Paul Wittgenstein, a pianist damaged by the conflict, but whose indomitable spirit demanded music for his remaining hand to master. Imagine the effect on Ravel, imagine the challenge! 

The dark hues of the Concerto in D Minor are generally ascribed to the technical limitations of “the left hand”. Poppycock! If Ravel had wanted button-brightness, he’d have moved the piano stool to the right. No, solemnity of subject dictated the sound. Thus it begins: struggling from a slough of sonic sump-oil, a vast orchestral gestation disgorges the soloist, flexing his artful limb. Surely, this is Ravel’s vision of Wittgenstein’s “rebirth”? With maximum majesty, Ravel’s orchestra reiterates the soloist’s stately sarabande, redolent of nobler times - whilst they are equally vitriolic in attacking the central jazz “march”, the opposing side of the coin. 

It’s like an evocative symphonic poem, inspired by common experience, where Ravel expresses admiration for the commissioner, whilst finding himself a “block-busting” catharsis. However, Ravel endows it with exceptional formal symmetry. It is (dare I say?) a concerto that any self-respecting soloist should give his right arm for - one of the greatest musical achievements. 

Note originally commissioned by the Vancouver Symphony for a concert given on 27 November 2004
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© Paul Serotsky
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