In the 1920’s jazz brought an exciting new element to the world of classical music just as that world seemed to be in chaos, searching for a new direction. Ironically, it was European composers who began to incorporate jazz elements into their compositions, even though jazz may well be, as many have said, “the first truly original American style of music.” One of the very first established classical composers to incorporate jazz into his music was Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) and you can hear it clearly on a wonderful new CD performance of his Piano Concerto in G by the brilliant pianist Valerie Tryon backed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Jac van Steen.
For a full review of this magnificent recording I suggest that you read this article from The Classical Review (click here). (I will only point out the one obvious typo in that article, where the Concerto for Left Hand was finished in 1931, not 1938.) This will leave me free to dwell on the jazz influence in the Ravel Piano Concerto in G. Ravel was interested in jazz before his 1928 tour of America, and he took every opportunity to hear it while in the USA. For the rest of his life he would urge American composers to respect the value of jazz as their own musical heritage and incorporate it in their works, but his generation was slow to take it up, although Copland and Bernstein needed no external encouragement.
This concerto is an ideal piece for jazz lovers who want to know more classical music, as well as for classical lovers who wonder what jazz is all about. The piece begins with the crack of a whip (the orchestral version, also called a clapper, slaps two pieces of wood together, sparing the lives of the rest of the players), and the horns that soon follow remind me of Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” which was written when Gershwin visited Paris hoping to study with Ravel. However, as soon as the piano gets the stage to itself, Ravel introduces a chord with a flat 9th, still a favourite of jazz players. Even though it begins as an appoggiatura to the tonic, it is on the downbeat with an accent marked. Sure enough a theme follows using the “blue notes” that have become so common in all types of music now, but at the time they must have seemed strange and new in the concert hall. In fact the conductor’s score makes a point of showing that the “blue” minor 3rd over a major chord is meant to be that note by including unnecessary accidentals (in the space above the notes, drawing even more attention to them), basically saying “yes, I know the strings are playing A# but the trumpet plays A-natural here!” A close listen reveals a lot of these “dissonances” that are really staples of jazz, with flat-9ths and sharp-9ths sneaking into all sorts of harmonies, along with flattened 5ths and jazz scales.
A lesser composer might be content to incorporate so much jazz fluidly into a concerto, but Ravel investigates the individual components of his chords and scales and creates truly amazing effects. A classic example comes in the second movement (in the bar at rehearsal number 2 if you are following with the score) where he gives the piano an F# against a D# major chord (which contains Fx). This is almost the dominant 7 with a raised 9th, known to rock guitarists as “the Hendrix chord” (from Purple Haze, although the Beatles had used it in Taxman already, and a whole generation or more of jazz players before them liked it too). Here it is the “almost” that makes it so important: Ravel omits the 7th that might “explain” its presence, and by itself the F# adds an other-worldly sense of pathos. Such an unexpected effect from what is most commonly an attention-grabbing ear-cruncher of a chord! Ravel’s genius here is in his comprehension of his materials well enough to use them in unique ways to express what is otherwise inexpressible. All three movements contain jazz elements used very deftly, some obvious, others quite subtle.
I love this piece, and I already have two very good recordings of it, but this is by far my favourite because of Valerie Tryon. Her playing is beyond magnificently virtuosic; I would imagine that it would delight Ravel himself. Certainly the tradition of how the piano and orchestra should play could only have been more closely relayed if Ravel had done so himself, since Valerie’s teacher Jacques Février played the piano orchestral reduction as Ravel coached Marguerite Long, the pianist for the concerto’s premiere, thus learning the intricacies of both soloist and orchestra. Such things as strict adherence to timing are passed along easily enough, but the particular touch on the keys and use of the pedal (known as “jeu perlé” which literally, and clumsily, translates as “pearl game”). In Valerie’s hands, and fingers, it does sound like strings of pearls floating on Ravel’s exotic sea, and it is finesse of timbre such as this that makes a CD so much better than an mp3 even at its highest transfer rate (i.e. its least compressed mode). Her phrasing and touch are a perfect collaboration with so fine an orchestra as the Royal Philharmonic and conductor Jac van Steen. At times the piano joins the orchestra as one golden thread shot through a splendid weave of colours, while when necessary Ms. Tryon brings the piano out front “large and in charge”, a true leader of a terrific assembly of some of the world’s finest players.
Full disclosure: I have known Valerie Tryon since shortly after I began work at McMaster University in 1988 and saw her in concert, or more accurately since the time I worked up the courage to congratulate her on a stupendous performance. I was honestly flabbergasted that the university could have an artist of that stature, and playing a free concert for staff and students at that.Each time I watched her perform I wondered how few peers she had at the piano, while each time I spoke with her I wondered how few people could possibly be that nice. Little wonder that she is so beloved in music circles from students to the most accomplished performers and conductors.
While she has been acclaimed and won much-deserved awards for her interpretations of Liszt, let me add that Valerie Tryon’s two CD’s of Ravel’s piano music are the finest versions I expect to hear in my lifetime, and they have helped me to understand the music of Ravel as no other performer could. Also, I am not alone in considering her CD of Book One of Debussy’s Preludes the finest ever recorded (replacing my erstwhile favourite by Walter Geiseking).
This CD is just one of three that Somm has released recently featuring Valerie Tryon with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Somm CD 253 features Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (revised version), the Burleske for Piano and Orchestra of R. Strauss, and Dohnányi’s Variations on a Nursery Song, all under the direction of Jac van Steen.
The third CD (SOMMCD 250) contains Turina’s Rapsodia Sinfónica for Piano and Orchestra, Franck’s Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra, and de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain, again with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra but under the baton of Kenneth Woods. This CD contains “bonus tracks” consisting of two piano encores — Granados’ The Lover and the Nightingale, and Debussy’s La Soirée dans Grenade — as well as Busoni’s transcription for piano of Bach’s Toccata & Fugue in D minor. All three of these CD’s are triumphs and a fitting tribute to one of the finest pianists to grace the keys.
Valerie Tryon is a name that every music lover should know!
My sincerest thanks to Alan Walker (no relation, unfortunately) for apprising me of these fantastic recordings, as well as his generous mentoring on all things musical.