Concerto for the Left Hand
Volume 4 of the Ravel Édition is dedicated to the composer’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. This revised 2020 edition was created upon the request of conductor Louis Langrée and the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées as part of their Ravel project with pianists Bertrand Chamayou and David Kadouch.
It was commissioned by the Fondation Maurice Ravel, the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées, the Orchestre national des Pays de la Loire and the Orchestre national du Capitole de Toulouse.
Reading committee : Bertrand Chamayou (pianist), Benjamin Attahir et George Benjamin (composers), Louis Langrée, Ludovic Morlot et Pascal Rophé (conductors).
It was in June 1937 that French music publisher Durand submitted the first engraving of the score and parts of Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (or “Piano Concerto for Single Left Hand” according to the poetic pleonasm left by the composer on his orchestral manuscript) for legal deposit. However, it is the year 1930 that appears in the composer’s own handwriting on the part carefully preserved by the Morgan Library in New York, as well as on his Reduction for Two Pianos (A. Taverne private collection). As well as watching a tumultuous first performance of his work in 1932 in Vienna, Ravel spent an incredible seven years – until just a few months before his death – waiting for it to be published. The composer was, at that time, suffering from an incurable neurological illness. In the words of Colette, he “had already bid farewell to this earth and was living on another planet”, suffering “the worst imaginable time of mental darkness”: a clinical observation that would suggest that the composer played no or very little part in the first official engraving and printing of his masterpiece.
The events surrounding the première performance given on 5 January 1932 in Vienna by the work’s commissioner Paul Wittgenstein far exceeded the trivial recounts presented in the papers, relaying Ravel’s fury upon discovering all the modifications intentionally added to the score, in addition to several wrong notes, by the one-armed pianist without the composer’s permission. Critics described the two enraged men, neglecting to specify that they went on to meet again, at least once, in Paris at the work’s French première on 17 January 1933 at the Salle Pleyel. During this performance, Ravel conducted the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris, previously rehearsed by Roger Désormière. A key date in the historiography of the work, which is curiously omitted even by highly prestigious musicological publications, in favour of the march 1937 concert performed by Jacques Février and conducted by Charles Münch, debuting the then recently published Durand score.
So, the burning question is: which parts was the premiere performed off ? Very few people are aware that Wittgenstein and his Viennese agent Georg Kugel had an orchestral score and parts unofficially engraved at their own expense. These parts were never deposited as Ravel had signed an exclusivity agreement with Durand in 1929, however travelled from orchestra to orchestra for several years, before Durand’s initial engraving and the expiration of Wittgenstein’s exclusive rights. A few copies of this 87-page score “als Manuskript gedruckt” and its red cover in octavo format have survived: one at the British Library and of course the treasured copy annotated by Roger Désormière, now kept in Paris at the Musée de la Musique (Philharmonie de Paris).
A study of this initial score, printed from an engraving produced by a German copyist (there are various Gothic characters and a strange mix of French and German abbreviations) and piously preserved by Désormière, reveals useful indications of corrections to wrong notes and other modifications to accents and phrasing. A 1930 proof, according to Arbie Orensteins dating, corrected by the composer alongside his loyal Lucien Garban, also provides invaluable insights into the original musical text.
The legacy of the Ravel collection is not limited to the countless press articles recounting the performance: a somewhat touching one minute and fifty seconds of images of the 1933 Parisian première, set to the music of a rehearsal filmed in the Salle Pleyel of the composer's Piano Concerto for "Single Left Hand" (according to the intertitle), for “Actualités Pathé”, is also still intact. This valuable resource reveals a series of strange modifications added to the piano part by the performer (confirmed by the radio recording of the 1936 Amsterdam concert performed under the baton of Bruno Walter), as well as an indication of the size and set-up of the orchestra, which, during that rehearsal, was conducted by Désormière. Ravel only took to the conductor’s podium for the concert “with the composure that was customary for him when befallen with the baton”, according to critic Alfred Bruneau. Text written by François Dru – July 2020 – Any reproduction, in part or in whole, is prohibited without prior authorisation from the editor.